The future of the home PC

With numerous new computing devices appearing on the market, what does the future hold for the home PC?

With numerous new computing devices appearing on the market, what does the future hold for the home PC?

For many years now, the personal computer has been slowly establishing itself in homes across the world. What was once considered a luxury item for high fliers is now a commonplace tool for a wide range of people. This has been spurred on by the availability of low-cost PCs, with some systems now available for £500 or lower. However, now that the PC has taken huge steps to becoming a commodity item, it is threatened with extinction.

While the big name vendors continue to roll out computers for the home market, many others have their eyes to the future and do not see the PC as a large part of the plan. New devices, which take parts of the functionality of a home PC, are constantly appearing on the market produced in an easy-to-use and cheaper format. If this trend continues apace, then the home PC could disappear from existence or become transformed into something unrecognisable.

Not many people would have been able to predict what the future held for computing when the first personal computer appeared several decades ago. Technology has developed as rapidly as the PC's penetration into the consumer market. Processor speeds have often advanced at a rate greater than Moore's law, while the number of uses a PC has has also increased. It should be remembered that the main reason consumers buy PCs today is for communication with and connection to the Internet, something that wasn't possible when home computers first went on sale.

Technology continues to advance at great speeds, but it is now reaching a point where the PC may no longer be the principal focus. Manufacturers are starting to look at other ways in which to bring technology to the general public at more affordable prices and in more focused products. Although most products are not in direct competition with PCs currently, it could soon reach a time when every part of a PC's functionality could be covered by other cheaper devices that would allow the customer greater choice in deciding what they need from the technology available.

If we look at what the PC is currently used for by most consumers, it falls into four main categories: communications and the Internet, home office applications, games and multimedia. The Internet, as used by the consumer, has only taken off during the last few years but it is now the main driving force behind many people buying a home computer. Looking at many manufacturers' recent consumer strategies shows that quite a few are marketing their products solely on their ability to get the customer connected. In turn, the products themselves are stripped down so that they have just enough processing power, memory and disk space to be effective tools for accessing the web. This stripped down version can then be aimed at a price point suitable for users who are mainly looking for connectivity.

The home office side of the PC is one of the most longstanding uses for the PC. From word processing tools up to publishing applications, the use of a home PC for professional or semi-professional activities is consistently popular with the mass market. The home office, despite its history of popular PC uses, is still increasing in importance as working from home becomes much more commonplace.

Wherever there is computing, there has been gaming. One of the principal uses of home PCs, since their inception, has been for leisure purposes as well as work. The days of programming your own games in from listings in a magazine are now long gone, and the gaming market is huge business. The PC market is one of the major outlets for computer games, and although it faces huge competition from the games console market, it tends to hold its own as newer games make use of newer sophisticated PC technology. It is also seen as the desired platform for strategy games, whose size, scope and complexity are just too large for most consoles to handle.

The use of the home PC as a multimedia tool has been greatly improved by the wide-scale acceptance of the Internet. MP3 audio files have emerged as a new way to buy and play music, so much so that some have predicted that it will one day be the main way to access new music. A similar technology for video files, called DivX, is also starting to emerge which could start a new chapter in the movie industry. The PC has also become the focal point for many multimedia peripheral devices such as digital cameras and MP3 players, consumer devices increasing in popularity day by day.

Up until the last few years, the PC has been unchallenged as the best tool for most of these categories, and certainly as the only product that could provide them all. But recent events have made companies think about the challenges ahead for the home PC and where its future lies, if it has one at all. Several devices have started to move in on the territory of the PC, in one or more areas, providing the functionality that PCs currently provide but at a fraction of the price.

The Internet is no longer accessible from just a PC. Today, there are many ways to get on the web. Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) has brought the Internet to mobile phones. While the functionality of such devices is currently quite limited, technology and the acceptance of WAP is increasing at such a pace that it may not be long before a large amount of content is available through your mobile. WebTV, or Internet access through a television, has so far had a reasonably slow take-off, but is another example of how the Internet can be accessed and electronic communications provided without the use of a PC. With a bit more work, this type of technology could become a major way onto the web.

Another threat to PCs is the continuing progression of games console technology. Not only are the games available on new and upcoming consoles far more advanced than previously, they are also starting to branch out into other areas. The graphics capabilities of some of the new consoles are pushing even the higher specification PCs for performance. Increased memory capabilities also make the introduction of complex strategy games, previously the bastion of the PC, a realistic possibility.

When the Sega Dreamcast launched in the UK last year its main selling point was its connectibility. The device runs on Windows CE and has a built-in modem. This allows the console to be used as another means of accessing the Internet while also allowing for multi-player gaming. Sony's Playstation 2, recently released in Japan and available in the UK later this year, also promises Internet connection (eventually - Sony's plan is to wait for broadband access) along with the ability to play DVDs. This will be a big selling point. These types of multi-function devices seem set to become very popular and - at a small amount of the price of a full PC - could tempt customers away from PCs when the major purpose for buying one was games and Internet connection.

But perhaps the biggest threat in this area may come from Microsoft, a company that has built its success on the PC market. It has recently announced its plans for a games console, X-Box, which, while tuned for gaming performance, contains a lot of hardware you would see in a PC. This, in theory, means that it could perform many of the current functions of a PC, while maintaining the image and therefore the price of a games console or multifunction device. Although Microsoft's full plans for the X-Box are still not clear, positioning the X-Box against the lower-end of the home PC market is a distinct possibility.

A similar situation is happening in the multimedia space. While consumer devices like MP3 players currently require a PC to receive their information, changes are afoot which will allow these devices to work independently in the very near future. Companies are now developing connected hi-fi systems where music can be downloaded straight from the web onto a music system, with an automatic payment system included. Methods have also been devised that don't require a digital camera to be connected to a PC, but instead require connection directly to a printer. Some photographic developers also now offer services for digital images.

This seems to leave the office tools as the main reason to purchase a PC for the home. But even here there are threats to the PC's traditional rule. With many of these new devices now running Windows CE or equivalent, it wouldn't take much development to be able to run applications like Word, Excel or even PowerPoint. In some cases, all it may take is an add-on keyboard and mouse or perhaps some additional memory. Even ASPs that so far have mainly been limited to business services could be used as a mechanism for consumers to use Office applications over the web from multifunction consumer devices.

The devices that have already been mentioned are either currently available or will be in the near future. Looking further forward, more and more consumer devices will have greater functionality at affordable prices. This will encroach further into PC territory making a PC purchase less attractive to prospective consumers. If the home PC is to survive going forward, then it may have to change its emphasis. Bill Gates once spoke of an intelligent home where the basic functions of the house were all controlled from a PC. It's unlikely that the PC, in its current form, would be ideal for this purpose, but it does point to some areas where the PC could look ahead. Otherwise, it could, once again, just become a toy for enthusiasts.

Paul Grant

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