Crashing the party

Crashing the party

Higher speeds? You bet. More functionality? Count on it. Better mobility? Absolutely. The reliability you're looking for? You may have to wait another decade or so.

During the next 10 years, the personal computer will evolve into a smarter machine, with vision systems that can sense a user's presence and advanced handwriting-recognition capabilities that will support note-taking on electronic legal pads.

Mobile users won't have to switch out modem cards every time they move from a broadband wireless campus network to a nationwide high-speed network, because manufacturers will integrate wireless support directly into chip sets. The demands of mobile users in the office, on the factory floor and at home will make the desktop PC as we know it an endangered species.

At home, high-powered multimedia PC servers will act as the nexus of the smart house, managing everything from delivery of high-definition television to the control of a wide variety of appliances, with data and video beamed to flat-panel displays throughout the home.

That's the achievable vision for the PC five to 10 years into the future, according to Microsoft and various PC manufacturers. But the vision is marred.

Despite all the advances, PCs based on the Microsoft and Intel architecture will continue, well into the next decade, to do what they have done for the past 20 years: crash.

Craig Mundie, senior vice president for advanced strategies at Microsoft, said that while the Windows XP operating system due for release this fall represents a "quantum improvement in reliability" over previous operating systems, it will require a "fairly heroic leap" to develop a completely stable machine.

Mundie explained that stability needs to be looked at "from a 10- to 20-year horizon, and we're only on Year 11 for Windows NT."

David Bradley, a senior engineer at IBM who helped develop the basic I/O system, keyboard and display for the original IBM PC 20 years ago, agreed that users will continue to experience stability and reliability problems for the foreseeable future due to the nature of the PC beast.

Functionality vs. Stability

"The space program puts very high quality into its software with a great deal of time and effort, at the expense of a great deal of functionality," said Bradley. But PC software supports many different applications often running at the same time which results in instability, he explained.

"The major reason for instability in a PC is the breadth of things you can do," said Bradley. "You can do any number of jobs. Different applications use different resources, and interference [between the applications] is sort of inevitable."

While "blue screens" have become less prevalent in the past 20 years, they're not going away, Bradley added. "Instead of cursing the failure, [users] should celebrate the billions of instructions" that don't go awry, he said.

But the last thing CIOs and chief technology officers want to hear is that reliability problems will continue to plague the machines that they have increasingly come to rely on to run their businesses.

"[Mundie's] vision and ours are not quite in sync," said Gary Robertson, CTO at Delphi Automotive Systems. "We absolutely want a stable environment," Robertson said, adding that PCs "are commodity products, and commodity products don't crash. They have to be simple to use, easy to configure and cheap."

Marty Larson, CIO at Consolidated Freightways, said he found it "baffling that they [haven't yet] got the technology to the point where [vendors can provide] a stable and reliable environment." Larson added that reliability tops his wish list of what he would like to see in the PC of the future.

Larry Kinder, global CIO and executive vice president at Cendant, which owns the Avis Group Holdings car rental business, 10 hotel brands and Century 21 Real Estate, said stability shouldn't be too much to ask for. At the very least, he said, Microsoft should focus its efforts on fixing what he called "rude crashes" that completely lock up the PC. Kinder added that he has learned to live with the "polite crash" that "bumps you out of an application or erases itself or just stares at you."

While the PC industry sees its future in the development of smarter and more multifunctional machines, CIOs appear to be more interested in simplifying them.

Bill Martin, global operations director at Delphi Automotive, said he longs for the day when installing a corporate PC into a network is no more complicated than plugging a lamp into an electric socket or picking up a phone and getting a dial tone.

Martin also said he would like to see the staff he uses to support PCs whittled down to the size needed to operate the company's global network.

"We're long past the stage of changing our own spark plugs in our cars," Robertson said. "Why do we need to be loading software? PCs should be plug-and-play."

Ken DeWitt, vice president of integration and planning at Sears, Roebuck and Co., puts ease of use at the top of his wish list. Any advances in hardware should also be matched with "advances in software distribution and management, [with] software centrally managed rather than [having] bigger and bigger clients," he said.

The desktop PC should also be redesigned so "it can be easily made mobile," Dewitt said. "As technology changes, we will have [the requirement for many] more mobile devices."

Consolidated Freightways' Larson said his company has started to move away from traditional desktop PCs toward a wireless thin-client/server architecture following completion of a pilot program at its terminal in Vancouver.

Simplifying input is also an issue for CIOs. Many users, including DeWitt and Kinder, said they would like to see future PCs equipped with truly functional voice-recognition capabilities.

But, IBM's Bradley noted, that's a wish that has been unfulfilled for the entire two decades he has been involved with PCs, and its fulfillment remains elusive.

"For the past 20 years, voice-recognition systems have been two years away," Bradley said wistfully.

Gates Weighs In

Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates reflected on the future of the PC during a conversation last month with Computerworld's Carol Sliwa.

Can you describe what you think the PC will be like five years out?Well, one thing we're on the verge of right now is having the tablet form factor, where reading and taking notes and annotating things wherever you are including when you're in meetings or traveling around becomes natural.

And if we look at the original scenarios that we had in mind, some we've been very successful in. We said, "OK, slides. We can take what became PowerPoint and make it better than slides. Word processing. We can take dedicated word processors, make them cheaper, better."

But in many other areas like reading, do people read magazines off their computer screen? No. When they're in meetings and they want to take a note or facilitate the meeting, is the computer helping with that? No, it's not. And there's a lot of very ambitious scenarios that in the next five years will be achieved.

Can you imagine 10 years out?Really modeling the business where you can actually see schema models that really let you understand what's going on in your business and . . . change those models without having to go back and have some two-year IT project to do it, that's probably in the 10-year time frame. That's very ambitious, that we'd get modeling to be that mainstream.

What has been your biggest disappointment with regard to the PC?We made an assumption when we started the company that the hardware industry would continue to turn out miracles. You know, Moore's Law, improvement in the microprocessor, cheaper memory, cheaper disk, higher-resolution screens and then wireless technologies. And those guys, whether it's the printers or the cameras, they have done a great job. They're continuing to do a great job. And it's a lot of their breakthroughs that enable us to do neat new things.

The one area where the breakthrough isn't taking place, and it's tough, is very inexpensive broadband access to homes or even small businesses. The price of broadband has not gone down. And there's nothing in the next two or three years that's really going to change that. So if I had a wand and I could ask for one more hardware technology miracle, it'd be some way of having $US20-a-month broadband to homes and small businesses.

Almanac: 1981

-- Population of the world: 4.529B.

-- Population of US: 229,465,714.

-- US gross domestic product: $3.1 trillion.

-- US unemployment: 7.1 per cent.

-- Minimum wage: $US3.10 per hr.

-- First woman on the US Supreme Court: Sandra Day O'Connor.

-- Nobel prize for literature winner: Elias Canetti.

-- Pulitzer prize for fiction winner: John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces.

-- The Masters golf champion:Tom Watson.

-- Stanley Cup winners:New York Islanders.

-- Space program:The first reusable spacecraft, Columbia, circles the globe 36 times and returns to Earth.

August 1981

August 1 - MTV premiers. Also on this day, Prince Charles and Princess Diana begin their two-week honeymoon.

August 3 - About 11,000 air traffic controllers go on strike in the US; they are later fired by the Reagan administration. Also, Burroughs agrees to buy Memorex for $US106 million.

August 6 - The 30-year bond yield is 14.06 per cent and the Dow Jones industrial average is 952.91.

August 9 - Baseball returns after a two-month player strike.3.

August 12 - IBM introduces the IBM PC. IDC predicts PC sales will reach 1.3 million units in 1985.

August 13 - In East Berlin, 50,000 people watch a parade celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall. Also, Pope John Paul II leaves an Italian hospital after surgery related to the May attempt on his life.

August 19 - The US shoots down two Libyan jets.

August 24 - Mark David Chapman is sentenced for the murderof ex-Beatle John Lennon.

August 25 - Voyager II begins sending photos of Saturn back to earth.

August 27 - Dow Jones industrial average sinks to 889.01.

August 28 - John Hinckley Jr. pleads innocent to charges that hetried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.

August 31 - The president and prime minister of Iran are assassinated by a bomb in Tehran.

Compiled by Mark Hall.

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