Thinking outside the box

PCs are changing on the outside and the inside, so what will the devices look like over the next couple of years and how can the...

PCs are changing on the outside and the inside, so what will the devices look like over the next couple of years and how can the channel sell them?

While we're constantly amazed by the rate of change in the technology industry, we're even more amazed by those things that remain the same. In a world where we now have virtual reality headsets, brain implants to control machinery and wireless data (after a fashion), it is disappointing that the PC is still pretty much the same as it always has been.

Launched in 1981, it has undergone a number of enhancements such as faster processors, increased memory and whizzy graphics cards, not to mention the introduction of faster internal connections such as the PCI bus.

Nevertheless, the basic design is the same on the inside, while on the outside - bar a few colour changes and some curvier boxes - it hasn't really changed that much either.

The industry could do with some innovation at this point. You only have to look at the ashen faces of executives in the PC market to see how bad sales have been in the past 18 months.

Linked to the downturn in the overall IT sector, PC shipments in the UK fell by 7.6 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2001, contributing to an overall 5.2 per cent decline in the whole year, according to figures from IDC.

Nevertheless, Rita Sfeir, research analyst with the IDC European Personal Computing Group, says SMEs are buoying up the market. Sales overall should begin to look healthier by the second half of this year, she predicts.

Design principles are changing, according to Steve Torbe, business manager for corporate access at Compaq, who argues the beige box is no longer in the company's line-up. Compaq is trying to reinvent the term 'personal', he says, explaining the device should be specific to a particular user.

"Until now, what has a PC been but a screen and a keyboard?" he says. "You are limited unless you can think more broadly - unless you can create it in other form factors. After all, the Pocket PC wouldn't have happened unless someone had tried to adapt the PC format."

Torbe argues Compaq is differentiating itself through industrial design. The company has been experimenting with some radical changes in PC design, although they don't seem to differ significantly from the usual screen and keyboard model and some of them are truly ugly.

Redesigning the PC using thin keyboards and flat screens is unlikely to alter the way that customers use it. Frank Lloyd Wright, the US architect who was responsible for the development of the skyscraper, argued that form should follow function. For the design of the PC to change, it needs to be used differently.

Less is more
That said, Compaq has some innovations in the pipeline. For example, one of its concept devices is a hybrid notebook/desktop that enables part of the PC to be taken away and used remotely.

Significantly, Microsoft also announced a Windows-based technology called Mira at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) earlier this year, which enables Windows CE-based software to be included in an undockable wireless screen that can be separated from a PC and used around the home or office.

Due to its large research budget, IBM is probably one of the most innovative companies when it comes to experimenting with PC designs. In February, it demonstrated a concept PC called the MetaPad, a chameleon-like device that could change its format depending on the way its user wanted to work.

IBM pulled most of the components such as power supply, display and I/O connectors out of the core unit and used a low-powered transmitter processor to increase battery life.

It then created a series of different docking units into which the core unit could fit, changing it from a PDA to a ThinkPad-like notebook and a desktop, depending on where it was plugged in. Big Blue has also experimented with wearable computers and even a computer wristwatch with a VGA screen that uses Bluetooth to synchronise with other systems. Unfortunately, like the MetaPad, this is nowhere near to reaching the market.

A return to ink?
Perhaps the most promising development in the PC space has been the tablet PC. Driven by a pen-operated version of the Windows operating system, tablet PCs have been tried before, but they have failed because of inadequate computing power.

Microsoft has OEM partners including Compaq, Fujitsu and Acer working on tablet PCs. Many of these will incorporate keyboards but a few will have bobble screens enabling users to turn them into A4 screens in a portrait format.

The specification calls for a radio stylus that will beam its position on the screen to the unit 300 times a second, making it possible to write text intuitively on the screen. Microsoft's rationale for developing this software is that it wants to restore the importance of ink to people's lives, but in digital form. Using tablet PCs will make it possible for people to work more intuitively by returning to the pen and paper model, it argues.

Are tablets the way forward?
The tablet model seems more attractive than IBM's TransNote device, which married a traditional ThinkPad notebook with a recognition system to capture notes written on a scribble pad. The device folded up into a portfolio-type package that enabled people to carry it around the office. IBM launched it in January 2001, but a high price tag and a lack of true handwriting recognition made for an unresponsive market and it was discontinued.

The question is, what sort of person will use the tablet PC and to what extent will it affect sales of traditional desktops, notebooks and PDAs? With more formats crowding into the market, PC vendors will have to be careful not to compete with themselves by offering too many products.

Neil Laver, Windows product marketing manager at Microsoft, argues the initial markets for the tablet PC will be in vertical sectors such as health, where doctors could do their rounds and use the devices to take notes. From a horizontal perspective, he believes laptop users who travel frequently will be attracted to the product. "Also the corridor wanderer - someone who is very mobile but not outside their own building," he says.

Laver argues the tablet PC will not compete with traditional notebooks, because it will supersede them. The traditional clamshell model was version one of the notebook, he says. As a full-power device, the tablet PC will be capable of doing everything that traditional laptops have done, he believes.

Still, hardware designers have some significant obstacles to overcome to realise Laver's dream. At present, higher-end notebook PCs have Pentium 4 chips under the hood, running at speeds of up to 1.7GHz.

Les Fisher, a senior thermal and EMC engineer for Intel, explains the design challenges for tablet devices are significant. "They are held in the hand and because the circuitry is close to the hand it can't get hot anywhere on the surface," he explains, adding because the devices are handheld, it is not as easy to put ventilation in them as it is for other formats.

"So you have to look at low-voltage devices, not just for the processor, but also for the backlight," he warns. In a typical mobile laptop system, the backlight and LCD take 32 per cent of the power, and the inverter for the backlight is one of the hottest spots in the system. Designing powerful tablet PCs won't be easy.

Changes under the skin
While the format of the PC changes, things are also altering inside the box. One of the mainstays of the PC architecture since the early 1990s has been the peripheral component interconnect (PCI), which has become a standard input/output bus technology for add-ins such as graphics. PCI-SIG, the consortium of companies responsible for developing and maintaining PCI technology, has put its weight behind two different architectures designed to supersede PCI.

The first architecture, PCI-X, is a next-generation I/O mechanism designed for high-end workstations and servers. The second architecture, 3GIO (third-generation I/O), was announced in August 2001. The first products based on this technology will appear next year, according to PCI-SIG.

PCI-SIG president Roger Tipley has great hopes for 3GIO in desktop systems. For example, he explains it is difficult to use fast AGP graphics in a notebook docking station, because the graphics transfer mechanism requires a tight connection to the memory control and docking station connections have not been quick enough. With 3GIO, it will become possible to speed up graphics on laptop computers.

The new input/output mechanism could also change the appearance of computers, he claims. "Because 3GIO has a signalling interface that is similar to server-like connection technologies such as Infiniband, it lets you have a short length of cable to connect different parts of the same box," he says. "So you can have your interface devices near you and the things you don't want next to you can be located away from your desk."

This means, for example, you could locate just an ultra-thin monitor on your desktop, connected to a keyboard and mouse, with everything else connected digitally through the monitor and placed beneath your desk. Of course, Apple already does this using straightforward USB, but Tipley's point is that a greater number of devices - up to 64,000 - can be connected through a 3GIO cable because of its higher throughput.

He also argues 3GIO could be used to create new I/O slots on PCs to replace the traditional PCI slots inside a PC that are used to connect peripherals and add-ins. PCI-SIG is working on an open slot format called Option +, which should enable users to plug in devices without even opening the box. Meanwhile, AMD is working on a technology for chip-to-chip data transfer called HyperTransport, although this won't compete directly with 3GIO.

Dragging PCs into the 21st century
Clearly the format of the PC is changing and tablet PCs look particularly promising as devices that could change the way the average PC user interacts with their computer on a daily basis.

Coupled with the internal system design changes that will take place in the next couple of years, we could at last see a time when PCs look like 21st century devices, instead of 1980s computers that have simply been retrofitted with slightly better I/O buses and more chic-looking chassis.

All we have to do now is convince the buying public that it's worth shelling out for PCs again, following the dip in PC sales that has plagued the industry since last year.

iMac lessons
One of the leaders in the attempts to drag PC design away from its cream-and-grey-box roots is Apple.

The latest iMac, which looks like a desk lamp with a swivel flat screen on a bulbous base, extends the manufacturer's reputation for innovative design.

Using the talents of designer Jonathan Ive, the last two generations of the iMac have won plaudits from all sectors of the industry. White, graphite and flower power units wowed critics when they were launched and proved that with imagination something different was possible.

Predictably, the iMac spawned a number of imitators with other vendors trying to incorporate some of its touches into their offerings.

Apple has developed a family of well-designed products - the iMac, iBook and iPod - but still comes in for criticism.

Over pricing and in some cases the design lets it down. Cracking in the casing on the G4 cube was partly to blame, with poor sales, for the decision to can it, despite gathering a significant following among Apple users.

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