Guest Column Readying for Retirement

Inwhat can only be described as an amazing run, the PC has managed to survive foralmost 20 years in an almost unchanged form. Resolutions, speeds, capacities,etc may have gone up, but the PC of today functions almost identically to theway its ancestors did two decades ago.

It takes a lot for a technology to beat evolution in thisway, and from the look of it, the PC is still going to be with us well into thecentury where we all thought we’d be using small hand-held computers, whereall information would be stored on far-away central ‘master computers’ and(Oh My God!) even the boss of a company would no longer say “I pay peopleto do this” but actually use a simple device to access information at hisdesk. You know–the kind of scenarios Science Fiction novels are built on.

But hold on here. What’s wrong with this picture?

All these things are actually true today. It actuallyhappened–the future did arrive. People use their PalmPilots to carryinformation around, access the information stored on Web servers on the otherside of the planet using the Internet and even the ‘boss’ has found that heno longer needs to fear the fact that he can’t type–he can now accessinformation off his intranet using just a browser and a mouse.

Is the PC history?

Not yet, but it is getting ready for retirement.

This is not to say that no one needs a PC anymore. Somepeople still do. For example, people working with huge spreadsheets, peopledeveloping programs that provide access to information, people who use wordprocessors–they all need to still use PCs. But an honest look at theirinventory of equipment will show that the most important things they need todayare their PDAs, a Web browser and an Internet connection.

Even games, once the shining stars of the PC world, arebeginning to move to other platforms. Dedicated game consoles such as the SegaDreamcast or the Sony Playstation II are where the real action is today. Andevery time I sit at the airport waiting for a delayed flight, people do adoubletake when they see me playing chess on my Palm Vx or a gut-wrenching gameof Doom–on my Digital Camera.

What is wrong with PCs?

There are many ways in which the PC is just too inconvenient.It is still too bulky, takes forever to boot up, is an expensive habit to feed,and is just not ready for the kind of work one needs to do–when one needs todo it.

Notebooks are supposed to work around this, but they costfrightening sums, are way too delicate and survive only a couple of hours beforethey die for lack of battery power.

Computing has changed

Essentially, computing itself has changed a lot since the PCfirst appeared. The closest that the term ‘computing’ has remained true toits original meaning is that it now means using a computer.

But in a purely technical sense of the word, it isn’t eventhat anymore–it is ‘accessing information’.

And to access information these days, you don’t need a PCanymore–you just need an information access device.

The future without a PC

Not very different from today.

You’ll probably use an Internet access device (IAD) thatessentially encapsulates a browser and communication ability in its slimprofile. You just plug it in, switch it on and start using it immediately. You’lluse the built-in browser to go to your Web mail service (either on the Internetor your company’s intranet). You will access sales data or other informationby going to Web sites that dynamically dig out the information you need, and youwill probably even store data on some far away server–a server you canessentially access from anywhere in the world.

Before you leave your desk, you will probably drop your PDAinto a cradle, transfer information you need on the road in seconds, slip itinto your shirt pocket, and walk away.

At home, you will find things not much different–yetanother IAD, a cradle for syncing your PDA, and maybe a monster game consolethat will probably integrate with your digital TV that displays you programs andinformation from a range of hundreds of digital channels that will come in viathe same cable that also connects you to the Internet.

And you will almost certainly listen to music stored in theform of MP3s (or some other digital format) that you can purchase off theInternet. Naturally, you will be able to crate a play selection using abrowser-fronted interface.

In fact, the concept of “one home, one TV, one PC”will probably go away altogether–every home will probably have an IAD thatwill be a TV, a music system, an information system or a game console, allconnected to a common backbone network.

The very thing that today characterizes a PC–the operatingsystem–will recede into the background. With that, the Windows versus Linuxwars of today will also pass into history.

Convenience will become the key parameter. People will nolonger crow about their PC being faster than someone else’s–instead, theywill brag about the speed of access or the kind of information they can afford.

The future is here

All this is a scant year or two away. For many people, it isalready a reality. Definitely by the middle of this decade, we will no longerhave PCs on our desks.

You don’t believe me?

Well, follow me into the home of Joe Ramaswamy. As you enterthe living room, you can see Joe’s kids using their game console to produceunbelievably real images on the huge 29″ TV screen–creatures that theycontrol and play with.

The kids are sent packing by grandma, who wants to check here-mail. She settles into her most comfortable chair, picks up a lightweight,cordless keyboard and hits a key, which causes the the box on top of the TV toconnect to the ISP, and seconds later she has a screen before her that shows hermail received from her other grandchildren living somewhere in the world,complete with digital photographs that she quickly transfers to her personalphoto album on the Web.

A little while later, Joe’s wife comes back from office anduses the same device to order some books and CDs from an online store. And sinceshe is online anyway, she leisurely browses online magazines and newspapers. Shemay even order groceries from one of the many online places that cater to this.A little later, the kids again use the device to go learn more about Vikings fortheir school project.

Finally, Joe himself uses it to access some information backin the office that he needs.

And after they are done, they switch channels and watch thelatest blockbuster on the cable or satellite TV.

All these people do everyday things, yet ask them about theirPC, and you will get a smile, “No, we don’t have a PC. We don’t reallyneed one. This little thing here costs Rs 5,000, comes with an Internetsubscription, and if is ever breaks, we’ll go and buy a new one–which, bythen, will probably cost even less”.

This is not 2020 AD in some Western country–this the year2000 right here in Bangalore, India. This is not a case of “time willtell”–this is a case of “time told”.

Atul Chitnis
is CTO of Exocore Consulting

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