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PC World

Picturing the PC of 2020

November 19, 1999
Web posted at: 10:03 a.m. EST (1503 GMT)

by Tom Mainelli

LAS VEGAS (IDG) -- You know it's going to be an interesting discussion when the first person on a panel speculating about the future of PCs begins by saying, "Speculation today means nothing."

That's how Jeffrey Harrow, a senior consulting engineer at Compaq, prefaced his comments at a Comdex conference session on "PC2020 -- Beyond Faster and Cheaper."

Remember products from 1980 and to try to envision from back then what we have now, Harrow suggests. That exercise illustrates the futility of guessing the future, he says.

Many PC industry achievements are based on technology that see
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ms quaint now. Harrow cites the first "portable computer," which weighed 24 pounds. And consider the 80486 processor with its once-astounding 1.2 million transistors, compared with an Intel Pentium III, which he says has 27 million.

Upcoming PC technologies will make today's high-speed processors and large-capacity hard drives look quaint one day too, he says. Intel Chair Andy Grove predicts that by 2011 Intel will ship a chip with one billion transistors, Harrow notes. And future hard drives will store more than 2.2 million pages of text in a single square inch of space.

"What will 2020 bring? We can't possibly know," Harrow concludes.

But that didn't stop fellow panelists from trying.

PC power and passion

The key to improving future PCs is to successfully apply all of that newfound computing power, says Carl Stork, a general manager at Microsoft. Making computers easier to use, through evolving technologies such as speech and visual recognition, is key because while technology is taking off, "humans are not improving at the same rate."

Stork expects dramatic changes in the way we interact with PCs, and says things will really change when we can make computers understand what we are thinking.

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Today, with few exceptions, PCs are manual tools that can't understand us, retorts Michael Slater, executive editor of Microprocessor Report. He offers a checklist of conditions for the next generation of PCs.

Most important, the industry must learn to operate in a new way, he says.

"All too often we get mired in the short-term battles. The PC industry is good at increasing megahertz and megabits, but it requires more fundamental changes than that," Slater says. After all, "systems still look like the PC IBM introduced years ago."

Any predictions that the PC as we know it will go away anytime soon are premature, cautions panelist Gerald Holzhammer, director of the desktop architecture lab at Intel.

"PCs will prosper for years to come," Holzhammer says, because they've always adapted to what comes next. It's merely time to reinvent the PC again.

The key to doing it right is making future PCs more simple and robust, and removing legacy components, he says. He likens today's PC to a tree, and says we must "prune 20 years of legacy" so it can grow well.

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