2001 and beyond: a PC odyssey

The PC's place on the desktop is being threatened by other devices. Alison Classe discusses the implications for buyers

The PC's place on the desktop is being threatened by other devices. Alison Classe discusses the implications for buyers

Rather like the bicycle, the desktop PC is a winning formula that has changed little over the years. Ken Batty, head of marketing for IBM's personal systems group in the UK and Ireland, says, "Since PCs came out, most major changes have been under the covers rather than external appearance. The most important external changes have been about usability or 'user seductiveness' - Windows, mice, bigger screens, colour screens."

In terms of future development, Batty suspects we can expect more of the same. Desktop PCs may continue to look the way the same, but with qualitative improvements.

What will future PCs look like?

That's not to say there won't be important changes. One area where desktop and portable PCs could evolve significantly is display. Not only will screens continue to offer higher resolution for less desk space, but there could be radical changes in capabilities.

Look at Toshiba, for example. One of its more revolutionary areas of research is a screen capable of displaying three-dimensional images. "The idea is that if pixels point in different directions, you can see different views depending on the angle you look from," explains Oscar Koenders, senior marketing manager for Toshiba Europe. Besides the obvious Cad/Cam applications, a 3D screen could be a better idiom for the computer's simulated "desktop", he suggests. "On a real desk, you can see the red folder is under the blue one, or go straight to the thick file without looking through the thin ones. A 3D screen would allow you to do that."

Another area for investigation at Toshiba is the Dynasheet, a roll-up screen allowing a fully pocketable device to have a full-size display - something that could be in production as early as 2005.

For the immediate future, Toshiba has been developing screens with more imaging technology built in, a step which the company says makes the device more robust, cheaper and less power-hungry as well as increasing resolution.

Researchers continue to be interested in alternative methods of controlling the PC and inputting data to it. Although, as Batty points out, changes like speech control have been possible for a while but have failed to catch on. Continuing to take Toshiba as an example, researchers are exploring how an inbuilt camera combined with 3D imaging would allow users to control the PC by hand movements. "We've already demonstrated that concept with a program allowing users to 'grab' an image of a car and stretch it into a limousine," says Koenders.

Issues of processing power and user self-consciousness could prevent this one getting off the ground in the short term.

Apart from novelties like this, a wide range of auxiliary technology could be sprouting from our PCs in future, depending on security trends. Smartcard readers, biometric devices like fingerprint scanners, microphones for use with voice recognition software - any of these could become standard PC attachments for authenticating users. However, there are those who believe the mobile phone could become the best option for authenticating e-commerce transactions, even those initiated from a conventional PC.

Will the PC be wiped out by pocket-sized devices?

Much current R&D action focuses on the mobile arena - though that does include mobile PCs. It's not surprising that notebooks rather than desktop PCs seem to be getting more than their fair share of the attention. An increasing proportion of PCs currently sold are portable ones and changing work patterns have convinced most suppliers that this trend is likely to continue.

But could even portable PCs fall prey to increasing use of PDAs or the pocketable equivalents of the future? So far, there is no evidence that PDAs are eclipsing the notebook PC as the mobile device of choice for the business user. For one thing, the increase in processor-hungry applications such as multimedia demands the power of a PC. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, a company called AccessDTV launched a hardware and software product designed to deliver interactive digital TV to PCs. CEO Dewey Weaver argues that this type of application will become popular in business too. "Every third meeting, we find someone who is already watching television on their PC via an analogue tuner, whether it's to monitor financial services and business news or to watch football when they're working late in the evening."

PDAs don't lend themselves well to watching TV, so Weaver sees this type of application as extending the life of the PC, in both desktop and portable incarnations.

However, the status of mobile phones and communications-enabled PDAs could change in future. It's not just that miniaturisation will increase their capabilities or that security gaps in wireless communications will be plugged. The diminutive keyboard is what makes them appear unsuitable for serious computing. But, as Batty points out, "14 year olds use text messaging more than voice on their mobile phones, so we're bringing up a community of people comfortable with that tiny keyboard."

Serious computing via a smart phone or communicator could, therefore, become more acceptable to future generations. At the same time though, wireless technologies such as Bluetooth could make it more appealing to use several devices - a PC, PDA, phone - and shuffle data between them, rather than opt for one or the other.

Or by information appliances?

In fact, we could be using more devices than that. Another possible threat to the long-term future of the PC is the predicted rise of the specialist appliance - single-purpose gadgets with the intelligence of the PC built in. That specialisation could make the devices easier to use and maintain. But there will be no loss of underlying sophistication; the devices could intercommunicate so the appliance that is your front door tells the device that is your kettle to switch itself on as you come in. This world of information appliances is discussed in Don Norman's book, The Invisible Computer.

Dr Lindsay Marshall of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne finds it a convincing vision for the workplace as well as the home. "Rather than a program running on a PC, you might have a special tablet for word processing or for writing e-mails - something allowing you to sit in the garden and work, then upload everything when you've finished."

Marshall thinks PDAs have the right attributes for this use but that no current PDA is quite there in terms of format. Some form of electronic paper which you can unroll, write on, and then upload from, perhaps via radio, could be a better answer, he thinks.

Anthony Sowden, project manager for novel viewer appliances at HP Laboratories in Bristol, expects to see the emergence of these devices; his interest is in electronic books. Nonetheless, he believes the PC has a healthy future, not least because some tasks are too specialised to have a whole device dedicated to them. "With a digital camera, you may send pictures directly to a printer. But if you want to print 'happy birthday' on them, it's likely you'll continue to turn to a PC, rather than a specialist device for printing 'happy birthday'. PCs will always be needed for flexibility, power and sophistication."

Marshall agrees, "Norman made an analogy with electric motors. Back in 1900, they used to be advertised for sale with attachments to allow them to do various jobs, just as we buy PCs. Now, electric motors are ubiquitous, and in the same way the computation we do with PCs will spread out through other devices. But just as we still have electric motors, we'll also have PCs."

It's perhaps easiest to think of information appliances in the domestic context, but that overlooks the possibility the home/work divide will become less rigid. That prospect isn't only raised by the increase of teleworking. Watching TV while doing homework may still be anathema to schoolteachers, but given today's tendency for work to trespass on home life, there's a case to be made for injecting some entertainment into business technology. As Weaver says, "We work late in this business, so I like to keep the football on in the corner of the screen and blow it up to full-screen if something compelling happens."

Depersonalising the desktop

In the meantime, there are still plenty of users who need honest-to-god PCs - users for whom mobility is irrelevant, even though they may not work in a conventional office. These legitimate desk jockeys include clerical workers and call centres agents, for example. When equipping such users, there's still a cost advantage to desktops over notebooks, albeit a diminishing one. There may also be an advantage in terms of ergonomics, despite notebook improvements such as thinner keyboards and clearer screens: adjusting monitor height independently can be beneficial.

One major difference between today's desktop PC and the lookalike of 20 years ago is that today's machine is likely to be connected to a corporate network - that's true of mobiles for a proportion of the time. If the application service provider model takes off, even the smallest business could go down the same route. So, with increasing emphasis on thin-client applications and delivery of PC applications from a central server, there's a case for saying the PC of the future will have a role more akin to of the traditional terminal.

The PC won't, in other words, be personal; personalisation of the user's experience will be achieved by delivery of the right software and parameters when they log on to any device attached to the network rather than by having their personal choices resident on a particular desktop.

One manifestation of this trend is the transformation of the PC into "corporate workstation" through approaches like Getronics' Networkplace. David Farnworth, business solutions consultant at Getronics.com, says, "Through a standardised build of all your PCs you can lock down the workstation, ensuring the environment remains pure, with no disintegration over time. And once you have a common operating environment you can deploy new software rapidly without encountering any DLL conflicts."

Though they are often used away from the network, even notebooks can be locked down in this way, Farnworth adds. "Early on, we implemented a system whereby virus checking software is automatically updated when you connect your laptop to the network, and that's become commonplace. If you take it to its extreme, you can have everyone in the company running the same screensavers to get across key messages. The extent to which you do this sort of thing is for the organisation to determine, but it's important to recognise the trade-off between freedom and flexibility and support costs."

Less is more

Together with the fact that most PCs are networked, the realisation that total cost of ownership is greater when users can fiddle around with - sorry, personalise - their own machines is a contributor to the emergence of the "legacy-free", or "legacy-reduced" PC. Examples are the Compaq iPAQ, HP e-PC and IBM Netvista S40. These products are likely to be more or less devoid of floppy drives, serial ports, ISA and PCI slots and other traditional sources of complexity in managing PCs. They are likely to have smaller footprints, which go down well with designers of call centres and others trying to reduce the cost of premises.

Legacy-free or -reduced devices represent a compromise between thin-client machines such as the Sun Ray or Wyse Winterm and the PC. Most organisations aren't in a position to move to thin-client machines now, even if that's their ultimate objective. For one thing, they are likely to have applications that need to be rewritten before they can run in thin-client mode. For another, as Steve Torbe, group manager, PC development with Compaq, says, "Thin clients have no local storage. The majority of customers want some local storage, so these legacy-free devices give them the best of both worlds."

Local storage is useful when people have confidential data such as HR information that they don't want stored on the network, and for mobile users who need to work when not logged on to networks.

Manufacturers of the new PCs are trying to reduce cost of ownership further by making them easy to maintain. Eric Chaniot is worldwide marketing manager in charge of the future of business PC at HP. "As well as making the e-PC extremely small and reliable, we wanted to make it easy to troubleshoot and repair. So, there are just three elements: the power supply, the computing box containing the motherboard, and the hard drive. The power supply is external, like on a notebook, so it's easy to see if it's working and replace it if it isn't. If there's a problem with the box, you can open a little door, take out your hard drive, and put it into a new box. If there's a problem with the drive, you can replace that."

Even if you can reduce the PC to its simplest, support can still be complicated by the need to keep upgrading to the latest version of operating systems and office applications. Torbe sees some evidence that IT directors are attempting to get off the upgrade bandwagon. "We do have customers who buy as high as they can because they plan to upgrade and know they'll need the processing power. But others are saying they're not going to do the latest upgrade - that they'll stick with Windows NT as long as they can."

Decisions like that are notoriously difficult to uphold particularly when users get wind of the advantages of the latest version, such as the benefits of Windows 2000 for mobile users. One possibility is to segment the user base, upgrading the power users only - but that could add complexity to the management task.

Here to stay

Whatever the nuances, PCs look to be here to stay. The PCs we'll be using in five years' time will be more sophisticated in use of technology, simpler in external architecture, but still recognisable. It's their use that's set to change.

Even desktop PCs are likely to be around for the future. Torbe argues, "Seventy-five per cent of the client PCs sold today are desk-based, so even if the portable market continues to grow rapidly, it be a while before portables overtake desktops. We expect desktops to continue to sell in huge numbers."

Points to consider when procuring pcs this year

  • Buying at an appropriate point on the "legacy-reduced" curve could cut total cost of ownership

  • But so could better PC support and management tools, so look at the big picture

  • Review software upgrade plans to project memory and processor requirements - but remember users can sometimes force the corporate hand on application upgrades

  • For SMEs, the advice to buy the most powerful desktop machines you can afford still holds good

  • Don't automatically replace desktops with desktops - the price differential between desktops and portables could be less than you think

  • Consult user management to make sure you're abreast of any plans for increased teleworking and adjust the ratio of desktops to portables accordingly

  • Compare suppliers' policies on recycling of equipment - otherwise imminent legislation changes could make disposal expensive

  • Look out for PCs that simplify connectivity, through built-in network hubs to which printers and scanners can be connected, or by generalised USB connections

    European PC shipment growth estimates

      1999 Growth % 2000 Growth % 2001 Growth % 2002 Growth % 2003 Growth % 2004 Growth %
    Professional segment 13.1 6.1 13.7 11.4 11.2 9.7
    Private Segment 32.7 20.3 16.5 7.5 7.0 6.7
    Desk-based PC 15.8 5.9 11.5 7.8 8.2 7.1
    Mobile PC 32.4 34.5 28.9 20.1 16.4 14.5
    Total Market 18.0 10.1 14.6 10.2 10.0 8.8

    Source: Gartner Dataquest (November 2000)

    European PC shipment estimates

    Company Q3 2000 Q3 2000 Market Q3 1999 Q3 1999 Market Growth (%)
      Shipments (000) Share (%) shipments (000) Share (%)  
    Compaq Computer 1,125 14.0 1,096 14.9 2.6
    Fujitsu Siemens 821 10.2 882 12.0 -7.0
    Dell Computer 669 8.3 656 8.9 2.0
    IBM 595 7.4 488 6.7 21.9
    Hewlett-Packard 583 7.2 441 6.0 32.1
    Others 4,273 53.0 3,773 51.4 13.2
    Total market 8,065 7,337 9.9    

    Note: These are figures for the third quarter of 2000. Totals include deskbound and mobile PCs.

    Source: Gartner Dataquest (November 2000)

        Q3 2000 Market Share Q3 1999 Market Share Growth 2000/99
    Rank Vendor Shipments (000) Share Shipments (000) Share  
    1 Compaq 4,353 13.1% 3,868 13.7% 12.6%
    2 Dell 3,838 11.5% 3,254 11.5% 17.9%
    3 Hewlett-Packard 2,615 7.8% 1,865 6.6% 40.2%
    4 IBM 2,456 7.4% 2,266 8.0% 8.3%
    5 Fujitsu Siemens 1,659 5.0% 1,630 5.8% 1.8%
    Others   18,427 55.3% 15,303 54.3% 20.4%
    All vendors   33,348   28,186   18.3%

    These are preliminary figures for the third quarter of 2000. Vendor shipments are branded shipments, exclude OEM sales for all vendors and represent shipments to distribution channels or direct to end-users. Data for Fujitsu Siemens includes shipments for Fujitsu and Siemens.

    Source: IDC, October 2000

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