The years dramatic turns in the global economy and geopolitics were echoed in the PC industry. Here are some of the good and bad events that crossed that smaller stage.
Intel makes waves: After being slapped upside the head by Transmeta Corp. a few years ago, Intel Corp. came back with a bang in 2003. It released its first processor designed from the ground up for mobility—the Pentium M—as well as the Centrino technology bundle, which took the laptop space by storm. One of the biggest beneficiaries of Intels Centrino was HPs tablet computer, which originally boasted a compelling design but was hampered by horribly slow performance.
X marks the SPOT: Microsofts SPOT (Smart Personal Objects Technology)-based watches arrived in beta form in 2003, and mine is now wedded to my wrist. The devices automatically update to reflect the local time and receive inbound messages on helpful information such as weather and stocks.
Cheap wireless networking: The mobile workforce has long dreamed of a low-cost wireless network for their laptops. A number of vendors launched a nationwide initiative to drive wireless technology everywhere, but it took T-Mobile to provide both Wi-Fi and GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) data at affordable rates. A lthough it isnt broadband yet, cheap wireless networking took a giant leap forward in 2003.
Apple unleashes “Panther”: Speaking of steps forward, Apple Computer Inc. finally gave in and made a solid effort to make its operating system compatible with the Microsoft-dominated world, with the release of its “Panther” OS. Now mobile Apple users can access some of the same resources us Windows folks have had for years and maybe get off the euthanasia list maintained by their local IT departments.
My first Ferrari: While Ive secretly lusted after Apple laptops, Acer Inc. stole my heart this year with its new laptop co-branded with Ferrari. Sporting the Ferrari horse on its hot-red lid and a mobile Athlon XP chip inside, this is one sweet box. Yes, I have PC envy (and am seeking counseling for it).
IBMs T-40 keeps going … and going: IBM released its new T-40 series, which can get up to seven hours of battery life, allowing many of us to leave the power brick at home. Now if it only looked like the Acer. …
New class of power notebooks: When I think “performance product,” I envision the new class of power notebooks with desktop chips and 17-inch panoramic screens. Im writing this column with Gateways model now, and it not only makes me much more productive, but I can play a decent game of Unreal on it. It even has health benefits: It has done wonders for my biceps. My only regret is that no one is yet making one with either the new Extreme Edition Pentium 4 or the Athlon 64 FX. (OK, so maybe that would be over the top, but it would still be cool.)
AMDs 64-bit move: Speaking of the Athlon 64, Advanced Micro Devices Inc. stepped out from behind Intel in 2003 and made the bold move of going to 64 bits on the desktop. Intel came back with what amounted to a workstation chip at one-third the price, and the two companies are now competing heavily in the performance space. There is something to be said for competition, and the performance user clearly won this battle.
Is that a computer in your pocket, or. … ? Some of you (wimps!) would rather not use your laptops to build upper-body strength, and one of my pet projects has been to help launch a new class of pocket computers. Several companies made progress this year with modular computers: Antelope Technologies started shipping its product; OQO received a second round of funding; and thanks to their efforts, the promise of a full-boat Windows PC we can put in our shirt pockets by Christmas 2004 just got much better.
Desktop blades: The other brand-new technology to hit the market in 2003 was desktop blades. With reliability and security that rival servers and no heat or noise on the desktop, these blades favored companies like IBM and Hewlett-Packard. HP left IBM in the dust getting its version of the product out first, but Clear Cube is the old hand in this space.
The other Mini that made a splash in 03: Another new form factor was the VIA EPIA Mini-ITX motherboard. Showing up in desktops about the size of paperback books and becoming a favorite for creative new desktop PC designs, automotive use and even robots, this was the most interesting part of Comdex Las Vegas 2003.
The USB dongle that could change the world: Speaking of good things in small packages, there was nothing smaller than Forward Solutions MiGo portable USB storage device, which allows you to take much of your PCs personality with you on a little USB dongle. The idea of storing your files and settings on a device you could put on a keychain boggles the mind and inspired me to paint an alternative future where we wouldnt even have to carry laptops anymore.
Flat panels/LCD TVs: Flat-panel prices dropped like a rock in 2003, and even LCD TVs started to become affordable. Its about time too: CRTs are horrible for landfills. (Its always good when you can buy something cool and do something nice for the environment.) The best of this breed was a 17-inch-wide LCD TV from Dell for $699, which got rave reviews.
Peripherals: Peripherals enjoyed dramatic improvements in 03: Logitech launched several lines of inexpensive THX-certified speakers that will prompt the neighbors you hate to move; Microsoft made up for its disastrous Bluetooth keyboard and mouse with its gorgeous Elite line; ThinkOutside rolled out a really cool wireless PDA keyboard; Gateway released a $350 Camera (T50) with a ton of features and 5-megapixel performance; and HP released a scanner (4600) that looks like art.
CD-/DVD-Rs:: Verbatim came out with some really cool-looking media, such as CD-Rs that look like vinyl records and DVD-Rs that look like film reels. I put a friends wedding on the DVD-Rs, and the result definitely did not suck. Also in 2003, both Sonic and InterVideo brought out easy-to-use, powerful tools for PC-based DVD creation.
Media Center PCs: Media Center PCs approached a rubicon this year, with the Gateway 910 series giving Sony a run for the money. Come to think of it, Sony brought out some incredibly good-looking systems: the V505D, Z1 and TR series are just stunning.
Just as we started the year with a new processor, we ended the year with one as well: Transmetas Efficeon Processor hit the market, insuring competition and continued low prices for mobile and forming the heart of HPs PC Blades. Competition is always good news.
Next page: The worst of 2003.
Now for the flipside. Clearly, the economy really stunk for most of the year, resulting in layoffs, shortages, lots of doom and gloom, and a Comdex that radiated a fraction of its former glory. Dont even get me started on spam, which approached national crisis levels as the government attempted to respond.
Diversity on the desktop: The absolute worst event of 2003 was a group of “security experts” arguing for diversity on the desktop, backed up by an idiotic recommendation from one of the large firms to put 10 percent of IT staff on Apple. Throwing out nearly two decades of data on the benefits of desktop standards, this classic “research” recommendation would only add cost and virtually no benefit. Desktops are not servers—too many seem to forget this—and there is still no substitute for thinking.
What were they thinking? IBM launched ThinkVantage, and the software created problems with those of us who had the otherwise wonderful T-40 laptops. Whether it was issues with Rapid Restore taking out our files or phantom wireless problems that just didnt seem to want to go away, the moment peaked with a group of analysts actually asking Intel to go to IBM on their behalf to fix the related problems.
And the award for worst mobile product goes to. … : Sharp brought out a new version of its Linux-based Zaurus, which cost a whopping $850 here in the states and wouldnt synchronize with any major e-mail program. This was a huge step back (remember the old $100 PDAs that didnt sync with anything?) and probably should get the award for one the worst mobile products of the year along with that horrible Nokia game phone.
Trusted computing: Trusted computing, a technology backed by an international cast of vendors and even more critical for mobile machines than for desktops, went virtually nowhere. Even though companies like IBM feel it is critical for open-source platforms, concerns about digital rights management and government access sidelined the effort.
Chinas new Wi-Fi rules: China decided to start driving technology standards; its first, targeted at Wi-Fi, would provide a back door for the Chinese government and heavily favor Chinese technology providers. This could herald similar actions by other countries, making it nearly impossible for an international company to compete or for folks to have smart phones, laptops or handheld computers with embedded Wi-Fi devices.
A bad Apple: Apple, not to be outdone by Microsoft in the horrible-pricing-decision department, didnt give provide recent hardware customers its new OS for free or even at a discount. Some folks found that they had to pay the $130 even if they bought the new hardware after the release of the new OS. This year Apple gets the crown for sticking it to loyal customers.
Patch pain: Microsoft patches were certainly no fun either; while much of this was driven by folks who seemed to take every security alert and turn it into an attack (not exactly pillars of our community), these patches drove IT managers to distraction worldwide. Apple and Linux had patch problems as well, once again demonstrating how difficult this feat is when you are dealing with large numbers of machines.
Silicon Valley to close Its doors: The most recent really sad event was Silicon Valley announcing they would cease operations at the end of the year. Right on the cusp of the recovery, it is a shame to see this mainstay of the technology media world follow so many others. My fingers remain crossed for TechTV.
Ending on a high note, recent surveys indicate the market is in recovery (there is even a company, VenLogic, training firms on how to do IPOs); HP is being rewarded for skillfully executing its merger; Microsoft has generally recovered from its pricing mistake; and even Gateway is suddenly looking like a player again. On a personal note, I havent had a major crash in months and discovered a whole new set of PC-modder toys to keep me going over the holidays. Here is hoping for the best for you in the New Year!
Rob Enderle is the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a company specializing in emerging personal technology.