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PC World

Will your next PC be a cell phone?

by Stephen Manes

(IDG) -- Would you buy a PC that lacks a keyboard, mouse, serial port, or Windows? You might, but you wouldn't call it a PC. Take the new digital TV recorders from Replay Networks and TiVo. These devices cost about $700 each, including downloadable program listings, and they share plenty of characteristics and parts with garden-variety PCs -- like off-the-shelf microprocessors, modems, and hard drives. They even have operating systems: TiVo is based on the increasingly popular Linux.

Where those devices differ from PCs is in their simplicity, purposefulness, and inflexibility. They're appliances meant for a single purpose -- recording TV shows, in this case -- not contortionists that can do everything from processing photos to ordering pizzas.

A few years ago, the buzzword was "network computer." Now that the network computer has turned out to be -- surprise! -- the networked PC, attention has turned to the evergreen concept of the "information appliance." The idea is that our PCs, jacks of all trades but masters of none, will be supplanted by devices designed to do just one thing and do it extremely well.

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Niches and glitches

In an era of plummeting PC prices, die-hard users find it hard to believe that consumers will choose a plethora of dedicated devices over a single versatile computer. But game consoles have already shown how it can happen. The truth is that, barring some sort of massive recession, both PCs and appliances will do well. They'll simply have their own niches.

In areas where the PC ain't broke, there's little point in fixing it. A couple of years ago, vendors touted Internet phones that could do precisely three things: collect e-mail, browse the Web, and dial phone numbers. They were supposed to go into the kitchens of America. They ended up going absolutely nowhere because they were too expensive, too limited, and too lame. And nobody's managed to come up with a remotely sensible replacement to perform any of the office functions -- word processing and the like -- that the PC does so well in a single package.

But we'll likely see standoffs as one shape-shifting device assumes characteristics of another. In this corner: The dedicated game console with aspirations to become a Web-connected communications tool. In the other: The Web-connected PC that aspires to be a great game machine. Set-top boxes that surf the Web will duke it out with both. The winners? Consumers, who'll benefit from healthy competition.

Buy or cell?

There will also be clear victories for appliance makers. With the right hardware and software built in, a PC could perform the same tasks that ReplayTV and TiVo can do. But most couch potatoes would probably prefer to watch TV on a big screen with the help of a dedicated remote, not a wireless keyboard and mouse. The computer-centered do-it-all entertainment center, pioneered a few years back by Gateway's big-screen Destination machines, did not exactly set the world on fire. When was the last time you heard someone say "I'll reboot the TV?"

In the mobile market, portable PCs of every size and shape will begin mixing it up with phones that are light and handy but have underdeveloped keyboards and displays. This time, the cell phone may play the PC's customary role of Swiss Army Knife. Why carry a separate pager, organizer, e-mail device, and Web browsing tool when a single phone can do them all? And as voice recognition improves, the phone may become even more compelling. Why be tethered to a keyboard when you can dictate your work, have it converted to text, and read it on your phone's Web-connected screen in a matter of minutes?

Will PCs go away? Hardly. People the world over will continue to rely on them as the most functional and affordable single solution. To reach the vast market of customers who don't depend on them, PC vendors will need a way to deliver truly useful machines in far simpler and more dependable packages.

If that doesn't happen soon, bet on the phones.

PC World Contributing Editor Stephen Manes is cohost of "Digital Duo," a new series appearing on public TV stations nationwide, and coauthor of "Gates," a biography of Microsoft's chairman.

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