Computer retailers will increasingly compete with retailers of books, music, toys and telephony products if Bill Gates' vision of convergence, outlined here during his Comdex keynote address, comes to fruition.
The Microsoft chairman and chief executive officer predicted that there were virtually no limits to where PC technology might infiltrate in the future. He showcased a multitude of PC devices in various form factors including tablets, PCs for cars, handhelds and e-books.
Clearly aiming to demonstrate that it is Microsoft software that is enabling these new devices, Gates unveiled its new ClearType technology, which he claimed would lead to a surge in the popularity of e-books.
The problem with e-books right now is "readability", he said. While users have gotten used to reading relatively short pieces of text on screen, most still prefer to read longer passages on paper. "We just don't have the screen and font quality to match the printed page," he said. "I don't even read long articles off the screen," Gates acknowledged.
ClearType, which will eventually be built into the Windows operating system, remedies that, Gates claimed. It makes fonts appear far less blocky and easier to read. For example, ClearType can triple the resolution of a LCD screen, he added.
After the keynote, one analyst agreed that ClearType could see the rise in popularity in e-books. "I was very impressed with ClearType; it could make a real difference in e-books in a year or two," said Gerry Purdy, president and CEO of market research company Mobile Insights.
It won't just be books that Microsoft helps to go digital, Gates said. With music and telephony becoming digital, Microsoft technology will aim to enable new devices and functionality in those arenas as well. Even toys, Gates said, are going to have amazing new capabilities as PC technology is increasingly built into them.
Certainly Gates' vision of convergence should give retailers food for thought. While it is likely to open up new opportunities for computer retailers, it is also likely to mean more competition from places like book and music stores. Just as convergence has brought office product retailers and resellers into the computer market, so too will retailers of other goods as they are increasingly touched by PC technology.
While PC technology is coming down to smaller devices it is also going up the scale as well, Gates said. He assured the audience that Moore's law - which says that the performance of processors will double every 18 months - will continue unabated, and further predicted that in the future "typical" PCs will hold between one and 64 processors and will be able to be clustered to harness a "multiplicative effect" for users in demand of more power.
To demonstrate, Gates invited to the stage a representative from graphics workstation maker Silicon Graphics to offer a peek at its first Windows NT-based models. The SGI machine, running a CPU from Intel, ran a complex 3D application that blended digital still images, live video and QuickTime movies without any noticeable degradation of quality.
The machine, called the SGI Visual Workstation, will be released in January at prices starting below $US4000, said Tom Furlong, a senior vice president at SGI. By comparison, several years ago a machine with similar capabilities would have cost $100,000, Furlong claimed.
"The PC is not standing still in any way," Gates said. "It will go far beyond what any systems have been able to do in the past, and have no doubt that the best is yet to come."