The end of the PC era

Since the late 1980s I have been among those predicting the end of the Personal Computer, and that end is now in sight. The PC is going the way of the typewriter, but not overnight. It took the PC about 15 years to completely replace the typewriter, and we can expect a similar interval before it finally disappear, possibly ending up among the same hobbyists where it started.

This transformation is less fundamental than the replacement of the typewriter was. It is like the T-Ford replacing the horse carriage, and modern cars replacing the T-Ford. Apple may score points for experimenting with the “Any color you like as long as it is beige” formula, but the Mac is still a T-Ford.

The PCs were called microcomputers before IBM coined the name Personal Computer, and overall microcomputers is a more apt name, they have just become a lot more micro lately. For IBM, that some decades earlier had estimated the world demand of computers to 5, the idea that each person should have his own computer was a radical one at the time. It just wasn’t radical enough. I don’t want to be constrained to one PC. I use several computers daily, a couple stationary, others are mobile, most are embedded. I can visit a friend or maybe an Internet cafe and have access to much the same information there as I would have at home.

The truly radical idea was the network, the Ethernet and the Internet (ARPAnet in those days). It was immediately obvious how brilliant networking was, but it was also exorbitantly expensive. An Ethernet connection cost about the same as a PC, and as you needed to pay for at least two computers plus the connection, a computer network was only something universities and some companies could afford. But the ones that did were a part of a global network (for a rather small part of the globe). The cost rapidly fell, and has been falling ever since. This has been the PC’s undoing.

The PC is a package created by cost and manufacturing concerns, again much like the T-Ford. To a much lesser extent has it been formed by user needs. Devices that have been formed by user needs have not been able to communicate with other devices. As the rigid manufacturing regimes are falling, communication gets easier, and the cost is gone, the computers become a component of the product instead of the product itself. This will diversify computers as well as simplify them, with the big beige house altar gone.

The PC computers will change skin before retirement. Cost and manufacturing has led to mobile PCs, the black clamshelled boxes called everything from portable to notebook, being competitive with stationary PCs, and soon they will be cheaper. Just as phones are entering a clamshell phase, the notebook may leave it. The heaviest component in a notebook is the battery, the biggest is the screen. The other components, including keyboard, storage, and processor can be neatly folded up more tightly than today. Dual-screen notebooks, battery booster packs (with bundled media player?), notebook set-top boxes, foldable screens, or simply a phone with an attached keyboard and/or screen bundle. With the software divested from the hardware, and data divested from the software, such components could be of use for other devices too.

While the even the stationary PCs may become tossable, most won’t move much during their lifetime. Smaller computers means that it is as natural to plug them into other devices as it is to plug devices into them. Gradually they will lose their elevated personal assistant status. It won’t matter if you have previously a task on one device or another, the next time you do that task you use the device that is most handy. With the exclusivity gone, the Personal in front of the Computer, the computer will retreat to the background to do its tasks to let the device perform its role.

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  1. Thomas Alva Edison writes:WOW, so you have been predicting the end of the PC before they were even anywhere near popular… affordable, or could do much of anything? Sure you did, if your little article is any indication, (basically the history of the PC and a list of it’s components not at all an explanation of what will replace the PC) I’d say you came up with the idea right after you read it somewhere else, circa 2005. But then again I predicted the invention of the cell phone back in 1928 so I guess anything is possible.

  2. Anonymous writes:Hilarious comment above mine. I agree and was thinking the same thing. I felt absolutely no meat to the article. Gee, what replaced the model T anyways. Nicer faster cars, but they are still cars.

  3. The two of you misunderstand, but then I agree this piece was a little hurried (I have good excuses for that, but it doesn’t matter). By saying that I had talked about the death of the PC since the late 80s I wasn’t bragging about being a great prognosticator, but a way to subtly put down what I was about to say. As you mentioned the 90s will be seen as the heydays, the decade, of the PC. It would be something like if I said in 1989 that the US would cease to be the dominant superpower. This is happening eventually, but the political story of the 90s was the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet empire and the US was supreme.By reading the rest of this blog you might infer where I am coming from. I am a nethead, I was exposed to the Internet at an early age (the early 80s, my late teens), and to the microcomputers (before IBM branded them PCs) a couple years before that. It didn’t take long to realise that the revolutionary technology was not the computer, it was the network. My response to Sun’s slogan “The network is the computer” and Oracle’s Network Computer was “Why, of course.” This was the way it would be going, and this is the way it has been going, but it has taken time. The NC in particular was overpriced and underpowered, like many other products that will be seen as historic and visionary, but really were failures for their companies because they came too soon.

  4. Going back to this piece, I am a little peeved at it/myself for missing sentences I intended to put into it, but evidently didn’t. I was thrilled when ASUS in one of their nettops put in a battery. I had predicted that stationary computers will get a battery, it makes sense even when they “won’t move much during their lifetime” because of the “much”, but I didn’t mention it in this piece.The most common response to this ASUS battery was “Why?”, though the answer is obvious. When these pieces stop being desktops of the 90s era and start becoming home appliances (almost) all of them are going to have energy storage and a way to go to sleep. This means that you can move them around at will even though you are never going to have them in your lap, and you don’t have to worry about power failures. This applies to other stateful appliances too of course. You should be able to pull the plug of any one of them, and when you put the plug back in the appliance will be in the very same state, with some special case for network state, but we know how to handle that.Somebody in product development at ASUS has my kind of thinking. Apart from the battery they also have an unbundled keyboard, another cruel cut to the PC bundle. Now this keyboard is kind of the NC of our time, I hope it will make ASUS a nice penny, but it won’t take over the world. A more gregarious keyboard, that could connect to any display from phone to TV onwards, might.

  5. The Wiimote is another case. We know it mostly as a hand-waving thing, but it also stores miis and other game-related information. My Wiimote is thus in some sense representing me even outside my Wii, just like a phone would, but within the Wii universe. The Wiimote is not too bright, and Nintendo hasn’t really taken advantage of this capability, it is more like an oversized memory card, but the potential is there.It is also a good enough example to clarify my in hindsight rather cryptic statement “it is as natural to plug them into other devices as it is to plug devices into them”. Picture your nettop as a Wiimote. You connect it wirelessly to the Wii box and through a plug to the Nunchuk. You interact with the system via the TV screen, the four units (the Wii box might disappear from view in a more advanced system) become one. But your Wiitop might just as well augment any other system to which it would be natural to connect it to.

  6. Mozart writes:In 1975 I made a radioshow in which I told people what will happen with all those chips.It is the world now. And the process will not stop.So what’s new?You know what would be funny, when you are going to talk with your ‘machine’ whatever.. and it replies in normal intelligent human text. Sofar this does not work very well after all those years.Or when all those ugly, irritating passwords and usernames will be gone, because the machines know who you are. How? Well they just know by all means.There’s nothing special in what will come and everybody knows and can tell you and me.

  7. Back in the 1960s and 1970s AI was popular, the machine who could think and talk and solve problems, but the shine quickly wore off. The human interface has improved greatly in the last 40 years, but this is not what machines are best at or where they will make the greatest difference. Having machines interact with each other (economically feasible since the 1980s) was the big step. These days machines are getter at interacting directly with the environment as well, and as long as humans are getting better at interacting with the machines we should all get along.

  8. funk writes:The desktop is around for the long haul because it’s infinitely customizable and it the only device that allows the user to push the performance envelope cheaply. You can swap hardware in and out to suit your needs. As for the competition, well, yes mobile devices are increasing in popularity but I hate using any mobile to surf the internet or write an email because I can do it on my PC keyboard or dictation engine in a fraction of the time. Mobile dictation technology is a very poor in comparison and suffers higher error rates from inferior technology and noise interference.You can’t play the latest performance demanding games on the biggest resolution screens, like Crysis with it’s 2,000 mods on any Television, mobile phone or games console I know of.


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