The Future PC Identity Shift

DQI Bureau
New Update

It’s one of history’s most successful tech products. Thedesktop PC became a global phenomenon in the 1980s itself. Half of US householdspossess one, and by 2005, three-fourths probably will. In India 1.1 million PCswere bought in the last fiscal year, which is expected to touch 7.5 million by2004, according to IDC India. From whichever end of the technological andeconomic spectrum you see it, the business, corporate or human world in thiscentury just can’t be imagined without the networked PC.


Competition–and survival

Despite its technological heights today, the desktop PC isalso fighting to survive, in its current form. Industry analysts debate whether,in the near future, the PC will simply vanish amidst a network of informationappliances. Client-server computing has brought us this far, but will it take usmuch further?

First there was the 1970s era of back office automation, andhost-based computing associated with mainframes. Then came the 1980s PC era offront office-automation and client-server computing, which extended into thenineties. The 1990s industry person said: the network is the computer. In thenew millennium, we’re witnessing another extension of this, and perhapsanother paradigm: the era of the PC automating and adapting to user needs andapplications.


Asia Ahead: Though the numbers are still small, growth is strong, making China and India two of the world’s key PC markets
  1999 2004 CAGR
India 1.1 million 7.5 million 47%
China 4.9 million 15.2 million 25%
Source: IDC India

Yet, the PC has remained a "computer"; it’s notyet quite become a consumer product. Despite burgeoning global usage, theaverage PC still cannot be handled with the ease and comfort of say, the cellphone or the fax. There are mild exceptions, like the iMac, but by and large thedesktop PC is complicated and difficult to use.

The Internet is a great source of opportunity–but from thePC’s point of view, it’s not exclusive. A world of information appliances ismushrooming with new possibilities. Whether it’s your palmtop surfing the Web,your cell phone retrieving e-mail or your fridge ordering groceries over the Net–thescope of the PC as an all pervasive information tool is diminishing–or so itappears.


The flexible PC

What’s coming in the world of the PC will stem not frominspiring technological advances but from effective application of technology.And it will help address the question: will the desktop PC as we know it, willsurvive, fragment or disintegrate?

The most telling issues for the future in the context of PCsaren’t going to be about faster CPUs, enhanced networking or bigger displays–it’ssimply that the PC will have to become more and more adaptable to work,business, communication, entertainment, education–in short about life andhuman ways. In fact, applications have been what have sustained the PC in therecent decade, after the novelty wore off. The PC morphed from programmer’stoy to business tool. On the way came desktop publishing. Now, we use PCs toshop, communicate and search for information over the Internet.


The next stage in the evolution of the PC will be of theman-machine interface.

The network is the computer

In the next five years, as it is today, networking will bethe technology to have the greatest impact on the desktop PC. Internet commercecombining both business-to-consumer and business-to-business is expected toreach a figure of nearly $2.4 billion by 2004, according to IDC predictions.Today over 60% of workplace PCs globally have Internet access. The US Interneteconomy of 2004 alone is expected to spawn business worth $2 trillion (IDC).Such trends will emerge in most countries. This techno-social shift and theconsequences of this are now familiar to everyone.


Desktop PC and "fat client" proponents often viewbroadband as a threat. A broadband connection, itself fat and always on, willchange the way data is handled. The PC will become less of a personaldatawarehouse and more of a tool to access data stored on the Internet or theserver. This transformation is already under way. Banks keep transactioninformation for checking savings accounts. ISPs hold e-mail on their mailservers, and ASP-style services like Hotmail are enormously popular. Manybusinesses maintain file servers that contain business data.

Of course the situation where the desktop PC will be littlemore than a means of accessing network-based data would raise other ticklishtechno-economic questions. Why should one have a box with an expensive CPUrunning at a phenomenal speed to merely download data? The question which willbe increasingly asked is what are desktops going to do with all that memory andpower.

New directions will lie in powering more useful and powerfulgraphic interfaces or voice-recognition systems. Despite backing from thecorporate world, voice-recognition systems have still been largely out of reachfor want of processing power. Despite only a few companies having invested inspeech technology research and development consistently, and the payoff may notbe very far.


More intelligence in the man-machine interface has alreadymade a difference. Word processors now routinely auto-correct spellings andcapitalization. Cellphones do the same thing, speeding up SMS text and e-mailentry threefold. In two to three years, there is likely to be enough capacity todeal with natural-language inputs on a desktop PC.

In fact this "natural" interface will mean morethan speech recognition. It would also mean an interface where the desktopcomputer would be able to see you and recognize your gestures. We may be closerthan we think to giving the desktop PC human perception capabilities. By thenthe adaptation of the PC to human beings will be nearly complete. Or at least alot more advanced than it is today–for there’s still the frontier of virtualreality to cross for the consumer computer.

A DQ Report with inputs from SuprabuddhaSanyal

in New Delhi