Opinion: The age of the industry-specific PC

The Intel reorganisation earlier this month gives us an interesting peek into the future of computing -- a future that could become a double-edged sword for corporate and home PC buyers.

If you haven't followed the news, Intel is creating five divisions, four of which will focus on particular computing markets. These are the Mobility Group, the Digital Enterprise Group, the Digital Home Group, and the Digital Health Group. The fifth group, Channel Products Group is an emerging-markets division that will focus on targeting technology to local markets worldwide.

For me, the Digital Health Group is the tip-off to what Intel and its OEM partners are planning: a means to stop the commoditisation of PCs and to increase sales and margins.

My first clue came at an Intel press event to introduce Sonoma, the latest generation of the company's Centrino mobile platform. What makes it a platform is that Intel's latest mobile CPU wasn't designed in a vacuum. Along with the processor, Sonoma brings a new motherboard chip set, improved graphics, enhanced audio, and better communications, including an improved Wi-Fi radio.

Intel processor, battery, and communications engineers worked on Sonoma as a team rather than in discrete divisions. Facilitating this collaboration is what the reorgansation is all about.

In Intel's words, "The new organisation will help address growth opportunities by better anticipating and addressing market needs." What they aren't saying is that they actually intend to create those needs. Just as industry-specific enterprise software is a hot trend, it looks like we might start to see industry-specific hardware to go along with it.

For example, at the Sonoma introduction, Intel executives demonstrated how a medical-imaging application accessing a remote server runs faster on the new mobile platform, with its optimized graphics and communications components. As have the application vendors who create vertical solutions geared toward best practices, it appears Intel is taking the first step in creating unique components optimised for the home, mobile, enterprise, and healthcare markets.

At the OEM level this is not new. Hewlett-Packard has a medical division, a retail sales group, and a government sales group. But I find it interesting that Intel is hinting at actually creating components especially suited to an industry -- health care, in this case. The dot-com boom saw the promise of build-to-order PCs, perfected by Dell Inc. Now we may be seeing the beginning of a design-components-to-order era, in which manufacturers take various chip attributes and put them together in different ways, targeted at specific industries. For example, Intel could create specialized graphics chips for health care, manufacturing, transportation, aerospace, or life sciences.

My guess is that within the next five to 10 years, you'll be using a PC uniquely designed and optimized for what you do. In some ways that's a good thing. But it will also mean PCs will become far less interchangeable. For example, in the future it may no longer be practical to share a mobile PC between work and home. And the entire pass-along effect of sending older systems down the corporate food chain as departments upgrade could become a thing of the past, as PCs become too specialized to be useful across corporate divisions.

As smart as those Intel engineers are, maybe their marketers are even smarter.