Is There a Future for the PC?

[SOUTH AFRICA] The dot-com bubble has burst; PC sales are down for the first time ever; Oracle has been predicting the end of the PC for 5 years – centralized, continuously updated applications will be rented out by companies, they believe. And Palm says the PC is not designed for the consumer, handheld devices are now leading the revolution. Will the PC fade from all desks not occupied by technical personnel? Or is there life left yet in the device that made Bill Gates the richest man in the world?

The market is certainly changing. The most visible symptom is PC sales for America in 2000: 1 percent down for 2000 overall, 24 percent down for December; the worst holiday season PC sellers have endured. Those with vested interests -Oracle and Palm, for example- have taken this as a sign that the Personal Computer is a dinosaur whose time has come and gone.

More circumstantial evidence abounds. The PC is no longer the only way to access the Internet: PDAs, telephones, even digital cameras are fast becoming routes onto the Web. They may not do it as well as the PC, but they have the advantage of portability – take a picture on your digital camera and upload to the Internet right then and there, check your e-mail from a coffee-shop or use your phone to check stock-prices before calling your broker.

But as one of Sun Microsystems’ founders, Scott McNeally, has been immortalized for saying, “The Network is the Computer.” Phones, PDAs, games machines all extend that network, they don’t detract from it. Because while they beat the PC in 2 areas, portability and price, the PC has advantages of its own.

The PC is the most versatile of devices; you can surf the net, make a phone call, take a picture, do your accounts, play a game, create a song or write your own program to control the latest Mindstorms ( set from Lego.

Microsoft and Intel are moving into the consumer electronics market -e.g. the XBox and an MP3 player, respectively- and will no doubt continue to add to their range of consumer electronic goods. But they believe, as I do, that the PC is the brain of a universe of electronic devices, helping to co-ordinate the efforts of your phone, word processor, radio, fridge and games console, whatever we stick a chip into.

And, to answer Ellison, while central servers are good for storing and updating data, they take away control, something the technically savvy consumer demands. You can’t tinker with your machine if it’s a “thin client”, with all the real software and hardware surrounded by firewalls and razorwire in some corporate farms in America. There’s a reason the PC stole the show from the mainframe.

But it didn’t kill it. Despite the fact that the home PC has more processing power than the computer used to put Neil Armstrong on the moon in 1969, NASA doesn’t use a PC to put things in orbit, they use a supercomputer. But they also use PCs to access the Net and do word processing.

In the same way, the new generation of devices is an added dimension to computing, not a replacement for the PC. The cellphone and the PC can and will live in harmony. As for the PC and the TV, well, that’s another story entirely.

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