PCs will give way to specialised devices

PCs will give way to specialised devices

It's easy to get nostalgic about computing over the past 20 years. But although we can wistfully review the advances in processors, hard drives, and RAM, it is ironic that the basic design for desktop computing hasn't changed in 17 years.

But by combining the specialised device technologies at hand with the lowering prices of corporate computers, we are on the cusp of significant changes in how we integrate computers into our daily lives - at both work and home. Or more prophetically, computing will change more dramatically in the next 10 years than it has in the past 10.

When you think about it, we have not changed the general premise about our desktop computer. Sure, we now have LAN connections and use mice. But we still have a separate monitor that sits on our desk that is only slightly larger than the monitor introduced in 1981 with the initial IBM PC. We still have a coiled cord keyboard that plugs into our computer where the only changes have been adding a few more keys and some vendors allowing the cord to be plugged into the front of the chassis. We haven't even seen much change to the shape and size of the system unit, although the PCI bus is supplanting the IBM PC's initial ISA bus.

Frankly, many find it frustrating that we haven't really changed our relationship with our desktop computer. The technology is readily available, but very few office users today are talking their instructions while using a pen to mark up their documents and having CNN in a background window. Alas, like the office telephone, there seems to be little hope for change in the foreseeable future.

At least not directly. We see increased advances as desktop computing melds with portable computing. Sure, this is ironic given that at first portables struggled to be desktops without the bulk. However, we have seen dramatic advances in hard drives, screens, and, most importantly, batteries to drive the functionality of notebook computing. And through PCMCIA devices, the laptop has become an expandable chassis. It is impressive to reflect on the dramatic changes since 1981's portable computer, the Osborne 1.

The docking station

But the biggest enabler of this merge has been the growing corporate acceptance of the docking station. With OS advances such as Windows' plug-and-play feature, we are seeing notebooks supplant desktops in many corporations. Even more excitingly, we see dramatic advances in store for notebook technologies. Take screens for example. While we now have Super VGA screens, we will see the spectrum expand by offering small screens in glasses as well as larger screens made possible because of folding screen technology.

But this is just one technology example. Even more enabling has been the acceptance of computing devices such as the PalmPilot (which continues to be the fastest growing computer platform in our history). With acceptance of this specialisation, we begin to see even more portable subsets of our existing mobile devices. By design, these devices work together to enhance our life. And with continuing advances in infrared (IR) technology, we will see this integration become even easier.

We are also seeing these support devices take on familiar shapes. For example, books: with the clarity of screens (and the promise of even more resolution), this year we are seeing computers in the shape and function of books from several vendors. But instead of trying to be pen-based portable replacements, they are positioned as simple reading-oriented computers. But it won't take long for them to become (hopefully IR-based) extensions of our daily notebook.

The real power at hand is the integration of these specialised computers. Building from our docked notebook base, we can have a specialised schedule manager (eg, PalmPilot) or reading device for our long trip (eg, SoftBook). So although we will continue to see advances of the base platform, the real power over the next 10 years will be seen by combining these computers into a personal system to help us do our job better. And with both Intel and Microsoft aggressively pursuing speech input, we should expect to tell these computers what we want to do in the next 10 years as well.

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