'Celebrating' the PC's one-billionth birthday

Matt Loney: Over a billion PCs have been shipped around the world, but is this really a cause for celebration?

So a billion PCs have now shipped. Although predictions say that we'll hit the next milestone in a little over five years, let's hope we never reach it -- at least not if this second billion resembles the first in any way.

Just consider what those one billion PCs represent. For a start this means close to one billion cathode ray tube monitors, each approximately 50 percent glass by weight, of which anything up to 25 percent is lead oxide. And that's not to mention the other hazardous materials such as phosphorous, cadmium, barium and mercury. Most of this goes -- despite upcoming recycling legislation in the US, Europe and Japan -- straight into landfill sites. In the UK alone, some 100,000 tonnes of old CRTs are dumped each year.

Then there are the printed circuit boards, which will number several billion, each loaded with chips and solder. Thankfully these are easier to recycle than CRTs, and in bulk the precious metals that they contain mean that recyclers are, in some cases, willing to pay prices linked to metal exchanges.

And I haven't even begun to talk about the billion-plus hard disks, computer cases, keyboards, mice and assorted other peripherals that must run into the hundreds of millions.

But recycling aside, the other reason we should laud the pending end of the PC is because the concept is slowly going the way of the humble electric motor, and that's no bad thing. Consider the last time you bought an electric motor. Now let me guess -- you probably never bought one, right? You may have bought a hand drill, a washing machine or a desk fan, but you did not actually buy an electric motor per se. A century and a half ago, when electric motors were creating a revolution in household appliances, it was common practice to buy a motor and attach peripherals to it depending on the job at hand -- much the same as we do with PCs today.

But times they are a-changing, thanks to higher integration and lower prices of components such as processors, memory, storage, communications chips and LCD displays. Only ten years ago a PC would typically have 100 or so chips. Today, you can buy a significantly more powerful computer on a pocket-sized circuit board that contains barely a dozen chips, and which can run off batteries. What all this means is that we are just now approaching the stage where it makes economic and ergonomic sense to embed the computers into appliances.

Internet fridges are still expensive, but so were electric fridges when they first appeared. There is already a prototype of the 'Weather toaster', and there has even been talk of a smart laundry basket that can talk to the washing machine. OK, so these won't replace the PC, but you get the point.

What I predict will happen is that the PC will slowly become less important. It's already happening in digital photography, where cameras cannot only connect directly to the printer, but they also let you resize and crop your images in the process -- PC not required. Of course, for word processing, surfing the Web or doing your accounts you still need a computer, but the days when this necessarily means a large beige box under your desk are fast approaching their end. Sure, the appliances that replace the PC will still find their way into the waste, but by their nature they are unlikely to need (or to be perceived to be need) upgrading or replacing with quite the same frequency of PCs. And, in the case of some appliances, such as Internet fridges, they could be subject to extra doses of recycling legislation. I'll drink to that.