Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

Summary: So have we entered a Post-PC era? Yes, without question. The x86 has absolutely been issued its walking papers.

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Editor's Note: This is an expanded version of Jason Perlow's Pro-Post PC arguments in our Great Debate Series.

Indeed, we are living in the beginning of what Steve Jobs has coined as the "Post PC" age. But what does "Post-PC" actually mean?

If we are to interpret from his comments that the iPad is a "Post-PC" device, then it could be inferred that the tablet and light computing devices are to replace the Personal Computer.

But I think "Post-PC" encompasses a broad set of technologies that will eventually lead us into the next generation of Personal Computing as a whole, not just Tablets and Smartphones.

A Post-PC device is any computing device that does not have to fully rely on localized processing to provide the user experience or does not rely on the Wintel architecture in any way shape or form. This includes multiple form factors including Tablets, Smartphones, Chromebooks as well as Thin Clients, WebTops and Smart Terminals.

Even devices such as the Apple TV and the Roku and the XBOX 360/Kinect that are designed for pure content consumption are "Post-PC" devices, but they still encompass the broader definition of Personal Computing.

Why Intel x86 is a "legacy system" and reaching the end of its useful lifespan

When I think of the "PC" I am still thinking very much in terms of the x86 Intel platform -- the one which has been in use for 30 years this month.

While processor clock speeds, MIPS, storage density and improvements in graphics and I/O have improved by over a factor of several thousand, and transistor density on the processor die itself has multiplied over 1000 times, ultimately the Intel systems architecture that we run today is not much different than we ran on the original 5150 PC.

Indeed, several generations of new instructions to support many new features have been added, and in 30 years, the instruction word length and memory addressing has gone from 16-bit, to 32 bits to 64-bit, but x86 carries the very same legacy baggage in terms of core instruction set that it started with in 1978 with the original Intel 8086-8088.

In short:

  • Increasing reliance on Cloud Computing, Virtualization and server-based applications (Web/VDI) will further reduce the need for heavily localized processing or reduce it to a very niche market of users that require powerful content-creation workstations.
  • The Wintel architecture is 30 years old and has reached a level of diminishing marginal returns in its ability to continue to scale in both processor performance and also the ability to compete as a best of class "Green" microprocessor architecture in terms of heat generation and power efficiency when compared to other architectures such as ARM and PowerPC.
  • The movement toward SoC's (Systems on a Chip) and very large scale integration and component consolidation will move the industry towards ARM-based and similar low-power systems architectures that will manifest themselves in a wide variety of device and system form factors.

I discussed this at length with Scott Raymond in our "Blade Runner" Series when we defined what the Personal Computing platform for 2019 could possibly look like.

Intel's challenges

Intel needs to have its "Come to Jesus" moment. Right now, they are continuing to re-iterate the benefits and proven longevity of x86, and with their recently-announced Tri-Gate manufacturing techniques, that they can allow x86 to live on for another decade.

Unfortunately, as demand for PCs wane and tablets and VDI increases, the x86 is going to find itself relegated more and more in the data center as a Cloud platform, where it will have to compete with IBM's POWER platform, System z Mainframes as well as competitive offerings from Oracle/Fujitsu.

In Public and Private Clouds, customers will expect to buy Software as a Service or self-provisioned offerings on shared private infrastructure. In many cases, this will sit on strategically outsourced infrastructure hosted by large IT services firms such as IBM and HP's EDS and Cloud-specific firms like Amazon AWS/EC2/S3 and Microsoft's Azure platform.

Intel's traditional customers will not necessarily even own their own infrastructure anymore, so it will limit the overall size of their server market.

Consolidated infrastructure means higher density and less physical servers -- and ultimately, less x86 silicon footprint.

This will occur at the same time when end-users are discovering they really don't need full-blown PCs in order to be productive or to consume their favorite content.

The next decade is going to be very challenging for Intel if they cannot come up to a strong competitor to ARM, POWER and the Mainframe.

The latter two competing platforms are very important because the Itanium, which was developed at Intel and to be HP's "Big Iron" alternative to POWER and Sun/Oracle SPARC is being largely abandoned by the industry.

Itanium is now only sold in Integrity UNIX systems sold by Hewlett-Packard and a few other remaining niche boutique vendors that still support IA-64 in the few HPC environments that haven't already migrated to commodity 64-bit x86 Linux blades.

Microsoft no longer offers an Itanium version of Windows Server and Oracle has abandoned all software development on the platform, and the various Linux vendors and distributions have stepped down their support for it dramatically.

So this leaves x86 as Intel's only Cloud deployment platform.

While x86 can continue to be a useful technology in the Cloud long after it loses relevance in the Personal Computing world, at economies of scale it cannot ultimately compete with Big Iron systems hosting extremely large multi-tenant Clouds.

As if Big Iron isn't already a concern, we have already seen some indication that even ARM may penetrate into the datacenter, which is x86's stronghold.

Ultimately, If Intel cannot come up with an answer to any of these platforms, it has to at least become a leading manufacturer of ARM-based chips, something they haven't had to do since selling their XScale ARM assets to Marvell in 2006.

What the future means for Personal Computing in a Post-PC world

While Intel has demonstrated fabrication techniques such as Tri-Gate that could conceivably allow x86 to live on for at least another decade, at least in the high-end server space, it would be much more practical to apply those manufacturing techniques to a much more power-efficient architectures.

These architectures include ARM or even the PowerPC, which is used in the XBOX 360, The Nintendo Wii, the Sony Playstation and IBM's System z and POWER 7 computers, such as the ones that were the brains behind the "Watson" computer cluster and Deep Analytics software that beat the humans on the Jeopardy! quiz show.

The ARM architecture, which runs at the core of the iPad and Android tablets and every major smartphone platform, is also a target for Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 operating system. So even from the perspective of the Redmond software giant, the x86 is entering its final years as a viable Personal Computing platform.

ARM is crucial to this debate because it is central to the systems architecture of many, but not all Post-PC devices. Certainly, it is possible to build a Post-PC device using Intel's Atom chipsets, but they are at a clear disadvantage when it comes to power consumption.

Performance with ARM chips on Personal Computing devices is an issue which often comes up when we talk about how it stacks up against x86. I would like to address that.

At this time, Intel has a clear clock speed, core count and instruction width and memory bus advantage when compared to ARM, but that gap will close quickly in the next five years.

However, performance matters only if typical end-users actually perceive a significant degradation in performance. There are plenty of end-users that have powerful PCs that bought completely overkill when they could have spent 1/2 or 1/3rd the money to address their actual needs.

With a smart device such as a tablet, a smartphone or a Chromebook, not only do they provide more than adequate experience in terms of regular end-user acceptance but they are also less complicated to maintain and deploy in the enterprise.

Additionally, in a number of cases, thin/smart devices might actually provide superior performance and resiliency to their PC counterparts when backed up by beefy server infrastructure, such as in large VDI implementations.

Soon, ARM processors will have 64-bit memory addressing and then 64-bit instructions. In the next two to three years, we will also see quad, six and eight-core ARM SoCs, which will allow them to completely replace the Intel chips used in today's PCs, although arguably a lot of software will need to be re-written to support higher levels of parallelization with higher core counts.

But Microsoft is introducing a completely new software architecture with Windows 8 and is ditching much of its legacy baggage anyway. If you've seen the Metro UI and the new APIs, it bears very little resemblance to the Windows of old.

The company has already gone on record to say that ARM-based Windows 8 tablets will not have Win32 compatibility whatsoever -- they will use entirely new apps that run on the Metro UI using the new WinRT, or Windows Runtime.

I have also argued in the past that Apple is almost certainly leading towards a unified systems architecture for Mac and iOS that is based on multi-core ARM chips, once they become powerful enough to handle the same types of workloads that typical users encounter today.

The PC is dying, but Personal Computing is not

The PC architecture -- which began its life at IBM and spawned an entire industry an is commonly simply referred to as "Wintel" is almost certainly in its final decade in the consumer space. But does this mean Personal Computing is dying with it? Certainly not.

By porting Windows 8 to the ARM architecture, Microsoft has already prepared itself for the "Post-PC" transition. It will re-write popular software products such as Office using the new Metro UI and WinRT APIs for ARM and other chip architectures such as PowerPC if necessary, and permit Windows 8 to scale from the lowest power ARM tablets to the most powerful parallel-processing Cloud-optimized super-clusters.

This is certainly not a new activity for Microsoft, as it had to port Windows NT to multiple systems architectures during the 1990s. At one point, Windows NT also ran on the MIPS R4000, the IBM PowerPC, The Intel i860, the DEC Alpha and also Intel's Itanium.

Today, only 32-bit and 64-bit x86 remains, but the NT kernel that we still use in both Client and Server Windows today has always been designed to be portable. What is old is new again.

Windows will continue on -- using Cloud and server-based technologies such as Microsoft's RemoteFX on VDI using thin clients and with local applications running natively on Windows 8 ARM-based smart devices.

And certainly Google's Android will also continue to evolve and will be able to run more demanding workloads.

Mobility is also an important part of the Post-PC scenario. It is telling that the largest growth sector for the PC market in the last 10 years has been in laptops and notebooks. But for notebooks to become more efficient in terms of battery life the fundamental systems architecture of its underlying OS and microprocessor platform must change.

Smartphone and Tablet usage has exploded because they provide superior battery life to a laptop computer and provide end-users constant access to their critical applications, regardless if they are in the office or Starbucks connected to Wi-Fi or on the train or in the ar using a 4G mobile data network.

Will all of those next-generation devices be tablets or smartphones? No. I find it very hard to accept that office workers will be able to transition completely away from mice, keyboards and large monitors to touchscreen tablets and still remain productive.

Tablets will become an important part of our overall computing experience, but they will not be our only window into Personal Computing, nor will they be the preferred environment where content creation actually occurs.

We will begin to see more and more reliance on smartphones and tablets versus traditional PCs in the next 18-24 months. Beyond that, we can expect Apple to move to a consolidated ARM-based systems architecture for its phones, tablets, set-tops and its Mac-based systems by 2014, with a total consolidation of iOS and Mac OS X product line by 2016.

I expect that in late 2012 and early 2013, we will see quad-core Windows 8, Android and iOS-based ARM tablets. And we will also see LCD HD monitors built by companies like Samsung with built-in RemoteFX RDSH clients which will allow the "Screen" to replace a local PC with VDI sessions.

I also expect to see ARM-based Windows 8 and Android-based laptops in the 2015 and 2016 timeframe as well, which will be manufactured by the usual suspects -- Dell, Lenovo, whoever ends up owning HP's PC business, as well as the Chinese and Taiwanese smartphone and tablet contract ODMs wishing to branch out into the ARM-based "Ultra-laptop" business.

So have we entered a Post-PC era? Yes, without question. The x86 has absolutely been issued its walking papers.

Is Wintel going to become extinct? From the perspective of the majority of end-users, yes. But will the traditional Personal Computing experience of having a mouse, a keyboard and a point and click GUI go away in favor of touch? No.

However, the platform delivering it to us in the next decade will almost certainly have no resemblance whatsoever to the PC we are using right now. That much I can guarantee.

Is Intel in denial when it comes to the x86's lifespan as the leading Personal Computing systems architecture? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Disclaimer: My Full-Time Employer is IBM. I write as a freelancer for ZDNet. The postings and opinions on this blog are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Topics: Processors, Hardware, Intel, Laptops, Mobility, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

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219 comments
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  • RE: Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

    Keep dreaming, the X86 has been a inferior and dying design since it was invented. The PC is here for the long haul. It will be PC plus, not PC or.
    hayneiii@...
    • RE: Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

      It's quite appropriate that the guy in the picture at the top of the article has a penguin on his shirt. The "Post PC era" nonsense comes almost entirely from Linux users, and all the talk about it started up almost exactly when they finally started to realize that desktop Linux was a fantasy that would never gain widespread acceptance. "So if we can't have the desktop, no one will! The personal computer is dead! Long live mobile devices!" (Which, coincidentally I'm sure, is the only market sector where *nix has ever managed to gain significant market share among ordinary users.)
      masonwheeler
      • RE: Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

        @masonwheeler 1) Linux people have nothing to do with this argument; many major distributions such as OpenSUSE don't even run on ARM. 2) Linux has cornered every market in which there wasn't a pre-existing monopoly condition, from smartphones to tv sets to cars to routers to settop boxes to supercomputers.
        jgm@...
      • RE: Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

        @masonwheeler Actually, I re-used the artwork from an article I wrote several years ago that is linked to in the body text. :)
        jperlow
      • RE: Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

        @masonwheeler Actually it was Jobs that started it with his iOS devices.
        slickjim
    • RE: Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

      @hayneiii@... <br><br>What post PC era are you talking about? Here's proof there is no such thing:<br><br>How many computers are there in the world? <br>According to Gartner Dataquest's statistics, in April 2002<br> the billionth personal computer was shipped. <br>The second billion mark was supposedly reached in 2007. <br>But how many computers are actually in use? According to a report by Forrester Research, there were over one billion PCs in use worldwide by the end of 2008.<br><br>And with PC adoption in emerging markets growing fast, it is estimated that there will be more than two billion PCs in use by 2015, Forrester predicts. Therefore, whereas it took 27 years to reach the one billion mark, it will take only 7 to grow from 1 billion to 2 billion. <br><br>Updated Stats Sep 8, 2011<br><a href="http://www.worldometers.info/computers/" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="http://www.worldometers.info/computers/" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="http://www.worldometers.info/computers/" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://www.worldometers.info/computers/</a></a></a><br><br>Sep 14, 2011<br>Many of those will have the new low power Intel chips:<br><a href="http://gigaom.com/2011/09/14/better-late-than-never-for-intels-low-power-chip/" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://gigaom.com/2011/09/14/better-late-than-never-for-intels-low-power-chip/</a>
      orea
    • RE: Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

      @hayneiii@... This guys argument has more holes than swiss cheese. For one thing our internet infrastructure is so many tens or hundreds of billions of dollars from being able to handle everybody using the cloud for nearly everything. A large number of us won't trust our personal data to it either, including me, and these arm powered devices aren't much more than dumb terminals anyway. Even by the time they get arm up to the same performance of today's Intel and AMD CPU's, Intel and AMD Processors will be way more powerful still. And then the software for them will be much more capable than the programs that the ARM stuff can run. Look at the difference in X86 software now compared to 8 or 10 years ago. It will just keep getting better and more powerful. Battery life will keep getting better too. I have been hearing that X86 was hitting a wall for so many years now it's just ridicules. Intel will come up with more tricks besides Tri Gate, that we don't even know about. And we don't know about them because Intel doesn't even know about them yet. Breakthrough technology accounts for a lot when you have the huge R&D budget and hundreds of smart people as Intel does. They can afford and do work on developing technology's that won't be ready for production until many years down the road. Heck I remember back in the Pentium 4 days when Intel was supposed to be In big trouble because their processor was as maxed out as they could go with it. And was already using too much juice. If we checked some archives we would probably find this guy saying as much even back then. Also when they scale arm up to near the performance levels of an X86, do you think it's going to be just as energy efficient as it is at it's present performance levels? I doubt it. Plus if Intel hits a wall, they can always develop arm processors, I'm sure arm would sell them a license. They may even end up buying MIPS Processor technologies, and developing them. They seem to have some potential, they have been doing multithreading for years. Especially if Intel throws some money and some of their existing technology into it. But they wouldn't need to resort to that for a very long time. I think this guy just hates the big mean Intel.
      j-mccurdy@...
      • RE: Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

        @j-mccurdy@... I could not have said it any better my self. Look every thing I own is Apple (Desktop, Laptop, and two iPhones) and Steve is a brilliant man and probably came back from the future or something like that, but this "Post-PC" idea is just wrong, sorry Steve!
        michael@...
      • I agree.

        @j-mccurdy@...

        Perlow seems to be more of an anti-Wintel zealot than anything else, without any real understanding of the technologies he writes about. In the 90s, he was probably predicting that Power/PowerPC, Mips or Sparc would kill the x86 (and that OS/2, and later Linux, would kill Windows). Now he drones on about how IBM's mainframes and Power architecture are going to kill the x86 PC. Never mind that mainframes have been around throughout the PC era and that Power's more than 20 years old. Ignore too that the top 10 TPC/C results for price/performance are all on x86 (8 Intel and 2 AMD, with 6 running Windows and 4 running Linux). Somehow, Power and the mainframe will win!

        On a technical level, it's simply absurd to claim that a modern Wintel PC is essentially the same as an IBM 5150 (IBM PC). Most of the original technologies in the PC disappeared years ago. In many cases, backwards compatibility was preserved for a long time, especially with the Bios (even though modern OSes don't use it), which is why some ancient OSes can still run. However, with the move towards Intel's UEFI (based on their earlier EFI), even the Bios looks to finally be on the way out.

        In contrast to the supposedly antiquated x86, Perlow presents Arm as a shiny new architecture, poised to dethrone its obsolescent rival in personal computing devices. In fact, the first Arm-based PC, the Acorn Archimedes, was released in 1987, only six years after the IBM 5150. Does the fact that the iPad uses an Arm CPU mean it's essentially a 1980s-era Acorn Archimedes? Of course not. Neither does the use of an x86 CPU make a modern PC (especially a UEFI PC) a 1980s-era IBM 5150.

        Modern x86 CPUs bear little resemblance to the 8086. They use Risc-like cores that take advantage of the Risc developments of the 80s/90s, with x86 instructions translated into Risc-like 'micro-ops' prior to execution. This offers performance similar to Riscs, but actually has an advantage in terms of memory requirements. The variable-length x86 instruction set offers much better code density than fixed-length Risc instruction sets, so machine code is much more compact. Ironically, Arm ended up doing something similar, but from the opposite side: Thumb-2 instruction set compression effectively provides a variable-length instruction set on top of the standard Arm instruction set (which is fixed-length).

        In terms of power consumption, Intel have a way to go to catch up with Arm. Can they close the power consumption gap? I don't know. What I do know is that in the 90s, they closed a supposedly insurmountable performance gap with the Riscs of the day, and proceeded to not only remain dominant in the PC market, but to capture the workstation and server markets too (which had been dominated by non-Intel Ciscs and then Riscs). Moreover, since Metro apps are architecture independent, initial success for Arm in the Windows tablet market doesn't close the door to Intel. If they come out with better SOCs, hardware vendors can switch from Arm to Intel without users even noticing. Only a fool would dismiss Intel and the x86.
        WilErz
    • RE: Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

      @hayneiii@... I agree, i love reading from here because i alway's get a laugh, there will never be a post PC era because we will alway's have personal computers weather they be a desktop, laptop, tablet PC or pocket PC(smartphone) i think we heading towards a more unified experience across devices, right now i cant edit a video on my phone and i cant use a touch screen on my laptops or desktops without 3rd party drivers and UI, i cant put windows(or linux & mac) on my non laptop/desktop devices, so i cant get the full personal computer experience on my mobile devices, even though my phone surpasses the recommended minimum requirements for windows 7, linux(all versions) and OSX i am hoping windows 8 will be able to be installed on my phone without restricting is phone functionality. People dont want a mobile experince that says "sorry you cant do that on this device you will have to do that when you get home" sure no one wants to navigate a 800x600p desktop environment on a 3.7 inch 800x400p screen thats why microsoft designed this new UI(i think its inspired by ubuntu) once you can install windows, linux, mac on all devices to get the same usability tailored to its controls, installed through the same install media then we will finally be where mobile computing should be. We will never get rid of the desktop or laptop, the desktop is too powerful and time saving, and the laptop is so much more versatile.

      PS i am really hoping win8 will support ARM A9 chip plus the tegra 250 video chipset, then i could have a full windows experience with more power and ergonomics for only $299 for an elocity A7 or $399 for an acer tab, where currently a netbook that costs $399 would have half the power of both of these devices, and would be less mobile

      PSS i have a friend modifying JULinux to run on ARM, snapdragon, hummingbird platforms currently he has a 400mhz processor with 256mb ram running julinux with 4 active video streams each on a different full screen in the virtual desktop without hanging.
      Feds Against Guns
    • Funny how the &quot;personal computer&quot; will replace the &quot;PC&quot;!

      @hayneiii@...
      "But I think ???Post-PC??? encompasses a broad set of technologies that will eventually lead us into the next generation of Personal Computing"
      Wasn't the 68xxx and PowerPC in the Mac also an "inferior" legacy processor?
      kd5auq
      • RE: Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

        @kd5auq The Power PC was a cutting edge RISC processor when it was introduced. By the time it went away, not so much.
        hayneiii@...
    • RE: Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

      @hayneiii@... Agree mostly. Intel's design was never the most cutting-edge. Then again, big corporations don't like cutting-edge. I also don't think the desktop is dying. There are tasks which a portable device will never do as well, HD video or photo editing, for example. Will the desktop play a less prominent role in the lives of most consumers? Probably.

      The question is, "will this drastically affect Intel's future?" I don't think so. Intel has the cash, research teams, and flexibility to quickly adapt to any shift in a major market. They have already dipped their toes into the low power market with the Atom series of CPUs. If they throw money and manpower at their low power chip designs, we will see huge improvements over a very compressed time scale. In short, even if most consumers suddenly begin using portable devices 95% of the time, never count Intel out of any market they target.

      In fact, I would be very surprised if they don't already have teams working on new tablet-centric CPU designs.
      BillDem
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  • Post-Wintel-Monopoly, but not Post-PC

    NT
    pjcordell
  • RE: Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

    I'm sorry, but tablets and phones have a long way to go before they can replace my desktop. <br><br>Yes, x86 may give way to other architectures in the future--near or far--but for the foreseeable future, tablets/phones are not going to cut it for most people. <br><br>The demise of the PC is nowhere near to rounding the corner, although x86 may be nearing the graveyard... maybe.<br><br>A couple of problems with tablets/phones is limited screen space. After a year using a 23" 1920x1080 screen (when not hooking up to my 32 inch HD TV), there is no way in hell that I (and probably lots of others) will ever feel comfortable on a 4", 7", or 10" screen; by this point in time my 15" laptop screen feels way too crowded.

    Another problem is centered around sheer horsepower. As it stands, I have a PC with a 1 TB hard drive (and space for a second hard drive), a quad core CPU, and 8 GB (upgradeable to 16 GB) RAM. The big deal about this Post-PC world nonsense is "Teh Cloudz". I am sorry, but I have never, do not now, nor will I ever trust "Teh Cloudz" as the primary source for storing my data. That is the pain with this whole tablet/phone vision of the "Post-PC" world. You have to trust that you will not lose your data to thieves, bad luck, or having a company belly up and disappear.
    DigitalAtheist
    • RE: Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

      @DigitalAtheist Exactly. If I'm using a thinclient or cloud OS device, what do I do when the internet or network fails?

      Answer: Absolutely NOTHING.
      Imrhien
      • No...

        @Imrhien

        The answer is: Go outside and get some fresh air.
        Joe_Raby
      • RE: Post-PC: Why Intel Can No Longer Live in Denial

        @Imrhien Which is what we do today when our data centers or desktops or laptops have a glitch. No way to guarantee avoiding impacts from network failures, regardless of what particular network we're talking (LAN, WAN, Internet, Corp intranet, etc). And I agree that grammar is important, regardless of where you are. I prefer to convey intelligence both in person and on-line. Just my personal preference. I do think I see "YOUR" and "YOU'RE" used incorrectly far more than most other errors. Not sure why that is...
        papermaker999