Why the PC gets my vote

Is the PC an endangered species? Not a chance!

Ignore for the moment that Bill Gates was at Comdex/Fall '00 saying the same thing this week because this isn't about him. It's about the PC and this weird notion that the sudden proliferation of gadgets in our lives spells doom for the PC.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The PC may be clunky looking or awkwardly connected to a desktop and phone line, but that doesn't mean the basic fundamentals of personal computing are over.

Personal computing was about breaking free from the dumb terminal tethered to the smart server. Personal computing was about installing the software you wanted -- the joysticks and Webcams and extra RAM you needed to turn a very dull-looking box into the original customized tool. Customized for business; customized for entertainment; customized for creating greeting cards and ugly print banners if that's what floated your boat.

When people start hawking devices that cannot be altered or upgraded, they are not saving you a few bucks or even warding off obsolescence, as the rationale goes; they are taking away the basic freedom of the PC.

Even if you never open up your PC and have no interest in seeing what a motherboard looks like, it doesn't change the fact that you own a truly unique tool -- one that you can alter and change and control as you see fit. There is simply no reason for stripping out this capability and calling the result "progress."

This is not to say that I'm anti-gadget or that gadgets should be more like PCs. I own more electronics than I care to name here, but that's the beauty of this era.

People thought that everything would morph in one massive machine that would be a TV and a telephone and computer in one. But instead of convergence, the very opposite has happened. And divergence, it turns out, is about options. It's about specialization and using a slew of very different tools for different occasions.

Wasteful? Perhaps, but specialization will always win in my book over doing everything only so-so.

So how does the PC fit into the landscape littered by so many gadgets if it is indeed to survive? Here are some changes I think will need to happen:

1. PCs need to be cheaper and easier to use. This one drives the technical types bananas, but it's true. Yes, PCs used to cost thousands and were operated by commands like "copy con *.* a:", but for most people, PCs are still too hard to use. Even the Mac brings us the notion of dragging a floppy to the trash can to eject it from the machine.

2. PCs need better software. It doesn't matter of the software of tomorrow is online or ships in a box, the current apps we use need to get smarter and more compelling. Microsoft Office 10 is not a history-making moment. Now that the Web is less of a thrill and more widespread, someone needs to start thinking about what else we can be doing with our machines.

3. PCs need lightning-fast connections. I believe that the current love of wireless comes from the awful state of today's wired connections -- especially in the home. I don't ever want to hear another modem dial-up sound or wait for a page to load. Jack me into the fastest line possible; it's funny how cell phones that disconnect every mile or so will start looking primitive and frustrating in comparison.

4. PCs need to be smaller. The move to strip down the PC is onto something, but it isn't the freedom we need to lose, it's the tonnage. I'm happier adding a Webcam via a simple USB plug than a PCI card -- in other words, let me have the upgrade path I need, and I'll gladly do away with the giant tower cases and loud cooling fans.

Bottom line: I want it all. I want to talk on cell phone and send e-mail from my Palm Pilot. I want to record TV shows onto a huge hard drive and randomly search program listings. I want to listen to music from solid state players, burn CDs, and order DVDs, and I want my PC to do all of those things and none of them if I decide.

It's called freedom, and that's what computing is all about.

Alice Hill was the vice president of development and editorial director for CNet and is EVP of Cornerhardware.com. She covers technology every other week for ZDNet News, pondering everything from the wireless Web to why geeks love motor scooters and the twillight of the LCD display. She welcomes your comments and e-mails.


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