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The future of desktop PCs

April 20, 1999
Web posted at: 3:02 p.m. EDT (1902 GMT)

In this story:

The roots of change
The future inside
The shapes to come
Arrange for change

by Rob Enderle

computer graphic

(IDG) -- Change is the only thing you can depend on in this life, and nothing in the IT world appears on the verge of a bigger change than desktop technology. This impending transformation will likely bring about a shift in industry power and influence away from Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp. and toward companies that provide connectivity or content. It will alter our offices and the way we work by replacing the large, application-crammed, unreliable PC with a simple full-function device that puts the complexity where it belongs—in the back office, not on the desktop.

Why is this happening, and why is it happening now? The forces driving the change are coming from several quarters, and they are all converging on the desktop.

The roots of change

For years customers have been asking for an appliance-like experience from their desktop equipment. You plug it in, turn it on and it works. End of story. What's amazing is that this has been the one thing that vendors heretofore have been unable to deliver. But the market is moving in that direction, and it will get there with or without the help of today's vendors.

This change isn't taking place only on traditional PC platforms but on alternative platforms as well. The Jupiter-class CE-based personal computer from Packard Bell NEC Inc., for example, is a prototype of what the desktop of the future may hold. Looking much like a laptop, it provides 10 hours of battery life, instant on and off and, eventually, when coupled to a multiuser server, a near-PC experience. These devices already can display presentations, handle e-mail, do light document creation and manage contacts and calendars reasonably well. Future generations are likely to replace most laptop computers with a product that is closer to what users want, yet is completely different from today's machines -- an appliance that virtually never crashes at the desktop.

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What's taken so long? Some vendors simply have had selective hearing about their customers' wishes, but more fundamentally, habit is to blame. PC companies built their initial machines on a standard based on the hobbyist's box from the early 1980s. It took a few companies (that is, Oracle Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.) breaking with that standard to uncover some of the real cravings of users. If either Oracle or Sun had truly understood what it was they were trying to provide when they ventured out with the network computer concept, we might already be dealing with a whole different desktop experience -- and a new set of vendors to provide it. Those two companies, however, being essentially anti-PC, had trouble creating a PC replacement. Yet despite their failures, the concept of network computing resonated and validated the Windows terminal, which has the advantages of a network computer and runs Windows applications.

Another portent of change is the U.S. v. Microsoft Corp. trial. Watching it is almost as compelling for some as the O.J. Simpson trial a few years ago. The antitrust case is already having a significant impact on the public's perception of the consumer computer business as the players are being portrayed in a light that is hardly flattering for any of them. Both Microsoft and Intel Corp. will likely see their reputations suffer, and their ability to direct change will likely suffer as well.

Just as legal action against IBM Corp. in the 1960s spurred the move to PCs in the 1980s, the attack on Intel and Microsoft will enable change. It may produce a windfall for overseas vendors or emerging companies, or it could simply stall the market. But one result is sure within a few years: a metamorphosis in what we have on our desktop as well as who provides it.

The most likely move right now appears to be to Linux (a freeware follow-on to Unix developed by Unix core developers) and dedicated hardware. Whether we are talking about single-use servers, specialized desktops or both, the opportunity for a hardware vendor to take Linux and create a unique and differentiable offering is stronger than ever before. We believe it likely that at least one vendor will deliver such a system within 12 months. If others follow, this could spell the beginning of Microsoft's decline and the emergence of a new desktop standard.

Besides these pressures, a once-in-a-lifetime event is expected to bring many companies to their knees and force a technology shift of unprecedented size and scope. The year 2000 problem is likely to generate corrective action next year as firms attempt to recover from total system shutdowns. IT managers will have to risk radical approaches to return their companies to operation, and that may well mean a forced migration to a new platform.

We expect companies will slow purchases dramatically in the last half of 1999 and the first half of 2000 as they attempt to correct year 2000 exposures. This will create a unique opportunity for suppliers of alternative solutions to replace the existing technology base and drive change into the market. Meanwhile, IT organizations that have already shifted from a desktop-based to a server-based model will be able to respond to the Y2K threat more quickly, and their highly visible success should further drive the market in that direction.

The future inside

Next year will see the launch of a number of technologies that will have a lasting impact on what we work with over the next three to five years.

Windows 2000 (formerly Windows NT), a product that has been long anticipated, finally seems to be within nine months of shipping. But most companies have indicated that they will be unable and unwilling to buy into it until they have completed their year 2000 remediation and seen that Windows 2000 is reliable. The chart reflects our current desktop operating system forecast for Windows technology. The growth reflected by Windows CE is a placeholder, and this growth could be taken up by dedicated Linux desktops or even by Apple Computer Inc.'s Macintosh machines should CE fail to meet expectations. (You'll note that we do not reflect Unix or Macintosh market share in this chart; that is because both operating environments are currently being sold into specialized areas and not positioned as a general-use desktop. This is beginning to change with the iMac, and we expect to include the Mac OS again in next year's projection.)

Intel's next refresh of Pentium II technology has already been released as the Pentium III and will run best on Windows 2000. In fact, the performance increase is anticipated to be great enough that current Pentium II systems will enjoy a shorter time in service as a result. That is, anyone buying hardware for Windows 2000 will want Pentium III to go with it and will probably dump the old Pentium II "before its time." The Pentium III will be followed shortly by a chipset code-named Coppermine, which will make most existing mobile equipment obsolete by providing a level of performance unmatched in today's portable equipment.

As for storage, it wasn't long ago that we thought 10 megabytes was more than we would ever need. Now we can buy 6.5 gigabytes for under $150. We can make our own CDs today, our own DVDs tomorrow and a new technology, solid-state optical drives from companies like Ioptics Inc., is expected to enter the market soon, changing the entire storage landscape. Given the concurrent shift from applications to servers, the expected desktop requirements for storage appear about to decline for the first time ever.

The shapes to come

Displays are changing, with 15-inch flat panels -- equivalent to 17-inch cathode ray tube (CRT) monitors -- dropping below $1,000. These displays offer flicker-free performance, virtually no radiation, a life cycle near twice what a CRT provides and a return of desktop real-estate long wasted by today's oversize CRTs. With technological improvements, cost reductions and performance advantages, flat panel displays are expected to replace CRTs in the market within two years.

The physiques of other devices will change as well. Apple delivered a wake-up call to the market with iMac, and Intel has responded with a cutting edge design of its own. Board manufacturers like MSI Computer Corp. are now moving aggressively to the MicroATX parts that can be used in a number of unique ways. And finally, the age of the beige PC box is drawing to a close and we are about to see an influx of small, attractive and surprisingly capable personal computers.

User interface is one of the most remarkable arenas for change. Technologies from Dragon Systems Inc. and IBM are likely to turn the mouse and keyboard of today into the dinosaurs of tomorrow. One of the most intriguing replacements for the keyboard is the digital recorder coupled with speech recognition software. This allows a user to create a document when a keyboard and mouse are impractical, and foretells a time when we will put on our computers in the morning much the same way we now put on a shirt. In fact, the shirt will be the computer.

Arrange for change

These technologies will all begin to come together in 2002. A weakened Microsoft and Intel will be vulnerable to attack, appliance-like architectures will be reaching maturity, and new machine designs will be moving onto our desktops, into our homes and onto our backs.

To prepare for this change you'll need to reduce the complexity in your shops by eliminating redundant vendors, establishing and enforcing standards and shifting as much as you can of the application load from desktop systems to servers. Create user councils so that emerging needs can be anticipated and met in a timely way while creating a base of users to support and take advantage of technological advances.

Ready or not, change is coming. Take advantage of the opportunities presented to improve your organization's competitive capability, reduce your and your users' aggravation and -- since you can't hide from this change -- try to enjoy it.

Rob Enderle, a vice president and research leader at Giga Information Group Inc., can be reached via e-mail at

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