The Next 20 Years

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2001-08-06

The 20-year-old PC looks a lot like a 20-year-old PC user: Its bigger than when it was born. The 160KB, single-sided floppy disk has grown at 80 percent per year to become the 20GB hard disk more common today. Memory has grown at more than 45 percent per year, from 64KB to a typical 128MB now.

And PCs are a whole lot faster: Clock speed has grown at almost 30 percent per year, from the 4.77MHz of the first PCs 8088 chip to the 800MHz of a moderately priced modern system.

But like that 20-year-old user, it takes that 20-year-old design too long to wake up and get to work; its still too risky to give it a task and just walk away assuming that it will finish the job. And youd sure think twice before you let it drive your car. Before the PC turns 40, it had better act a lot more grown up.

After 20 years, we still have to talk about "booting" our machines—and rebooting them, as almost a first resort, when something doesnt work. We take this for granted—but more than a decade ago, PC-based, point-of-sale terminals in Thrifty Drug stores were running Digital Research Inc.s FlexOS, a real-time operating system whose device drivers could be dynamically unloaded and reloaded.

Ask any server boss how often a Windows box needs restarting, merely in the course of normal maintenance. The PC of 2021 should never need to be started from scratch.

PC applications still impose a sequential workflow that doesnt really fit the way people think. Embedded, editable objects are a big step up from what we had in 1981, but look at software development environments: They can use more than one tool at a time on a single work object.

The PC of 2021 should never tell a user, "File is in use by another application"—it should do the work and notify other tools of the changes made.

And PC peripherals, using technologies such as Jini, should carry with them the user interface code thats needed for the "mother ship" PC to use those devices abilities. The PC of 2021 should never respond to a new device with the demand, "Driver needed: Please insert disk."

Will the PC be displaced by a thinner, less complex device that makes more use of remote Web-service resources? Not likely. The high bandwidth afforded by local mass storage will never be overtaken by Internet connections, and bandwidth is the scarce resource as data volume growth outstrips all other measures of user demand for PC performance. It will be the intense requirements of digital imagery and video, as well as ever-more-realistic games, that will continue to challenge PC builders and core technology providers.

But few PC buyers today find their machines too slow or too cramped for either memory or mass storage. What they want is not more sizzle but less struggle—and much less surprise.

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