What Does the Future Hold for the PC?

Internet services and cheap bandwidth may challenge the PC's marketplace supremacy as it adapts to survive.

On Aug. 12, the IBM PC hits the 25-year mark.

The date is significant not because it was the first PC on the market, as there are a number of contenders for that distinction: The Apple 2, the Radio Shack TRS-80, the Commodore 64, and even the MITS Altair 8800 of 1975, among many others, predate the IBM product as early "personal computers."

But all these earlier machines were dismissed as mere toys by most businesspeople, who contended that PCs couldnt perform the work they did every day on huge and costly mainframes and minicomputers.

But when IBM introduced its original PC with a single 5.25-inch floppy disk drive, 256KB of RAM and the Intel 8088 running at 4.77 MHz, personal computers were no longer toys for the home—they became business tools.

Since then personal computers have grown in power and sophistication, so that for less than $1,000 people can own a machine that runs faster and has more memory than the most powerful supercomputer of the 1980s.

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But despite its relative youth, the demise and eventual replacement of the PC has been the subject of speculation among enthusiasts and detractors for years.

For a while, since the turn of the 21st century, Internet applications seemed poised to reduce full-featured desktop PCs to irrelevance, especially as designers packed more features into PDAs and smart phones.

Well, not so fast.

According to a new study by Gartner—released to coincide with the PCs silver anniversary—the challenges to the personal computer remain, but there is still a bright future for the descendants of the first IBM PC.

"The death of the PC has been forecast many times during the years," said Charles Smulders, managing vice president of Gartners Client Computing Group, in Stamford, Conn. However, he noted that the PC has managed to remain competitive in the market place through better price performance and a host of other reasons.

Some of those reasons, according to the Gartner study, include the PCs ability to perform as an extensible platform that has constantly evolved as microprocessor technology has become ever more powerful and less costly.

Falling prices have made PCs affordable by a larger proportion of the worlds population. PC designers are looking for ways to put basic but effective PCs in the hands of people in even the poorest third-world countries.

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Furthermore, there are the essential ergonomic requirements for people who want a powerful, full-featured machine, with a larger screen and keyboard, to work on for hours at a time. These demands arent going to go way, Smulders said.

However, he said, thats not to imply that there will not be problems or limitations for the PC as it moves into the future. Theres the cost of maintaining a PC, slim profit margins for vendors and the desire of the general public to mold the functions of the PC into the homes living space.

The future of the PC lies with the great innovations that helped sell 1.6 billion of these machines in the last 25 years, and most of these great innovations, Smulders said, have been related to the Internet.

Salvation may also lie with virtualization, which will allow the PC to run several environments independently of each other.

"Virtualization will be a key development, enabling the delineation of function and access, which will, in turn, deliver improved ease of use and security benefits," part of the Gartner report reads. "The biggest challenge the PC industry will face is adapting to new applications, management and business models while supporting the legacy versions of these as well."

As for home users, Smulders said he sees a future in which the PC will become part of the living room, where it will morph and blend into the home environment much like audio systems and televisions.

Smulders does see a rising challenge to PCs from smaller consumer devices, such as game consoles, which have been taking on functions that were once exclusive to the PC.

"I still think there is a place for the PC and I think we will see that market grow as we go forward," Smulders said. But he was more cautious when asked whether or not the PC will survive in some recognizable form to celebrate a 50th anniversary. "Im not ready to forecast the next 25 years," Smulders said.

Editors Note: West Coast News Editor John Pallatto contributed to this report.

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