Commentary: Home computing is where the heart is

Even though home computers still usher in important new technologies, they don't get the attention they deserve, says columnist John Dvorak.

When the desktop computer was first introduced, it was called a microcomputer. Microsoft took its company name based on the promise of the microcomputer.

Over time, the microcomputer's name changed to personal computer, desktop computer, workstation and, finally, PC. Even Apple calls its machines PCs now--an irony to many of us. Nobody calls a machine a home computer anymore. The term faded as people saw that corporations were buying these machines by the millions.

Many small home computer systems became known as small office/home office, or SOHO, computers. The nomenclature change helped legitimise tax write-offs for the equipment, so nobody complained. Despite the confusion, the market for computers is still a trickle-up one and the home computer of today is the business desktop of tomorrow. We all know that the home computer now tends to be much more powerful and advanced than a typical office machine.

Let's look at some big trends in home desktop computing and see how they may affect the corporation.

Wireless networking. Make no mistake--it's the home computer that has created the wireless revolution. Wireless technology had been languishing in the office environment, giving rise to expensive products that didn't work well. Demand from home users triggered the newer chipsets and cheaper systems now found on most computers. More importantly, these technologies actually work. There's no question that 802.11b technology is the king of this domain, serving up 11Mbit/s connectivity throughout any small networked environment.

The success of this technology has trickled up to the US mobile market, via add-in PC Cards that let travellers hook up to public systems such as those provided by Wayport. The demand now for 3G phones with fast connectivity has emerged from the wireless revolution, which began in the home, where people didn't want to string wires all over the house.

Music and multimedia. The trend toward multimedia has its roots in home computing and has now forced corporations to use network analysis tools to see which employees are hogging bandwidth as they listen to radio and video feeds on their desktop computers. With voice and video mail, videoconferencing and the emergence of corporate streaming media for training, the demand for full access to any audio/video streams is going to increase--especially among executives. At some point, corporations are simply going to have to increase bandwidth to the Internet across the corporate network. The networking revolution is far from over, despite the present stock market doldrums.

Hobbies. The home computer user often has a few computer-related hobbies, such as digital photography or even video-editing. Some users do Web pages or JavaScript coding as a hobby. While few office users will ever spend hours at the computer editing their personal photos with Photoshop, digital photography has been promoted within the corporation. Most home hobbies will trickle up to corporations, bringing about more professional-looking newsletters and so on. These are morale-boosting trends that will be beneficial to any firm.

Gaming and 3D. Within the context of the computing revolution, gaming is the tail that wags the dog. Game development has always been the place where all the interesting code was initially written. The 3D revolution has brought all sorts of new graphical functionality, including real-time rendering, textures and incredible visual effects.

Businesses, however, have been baffled by this. This has created a dichotomous market, where high-performance gaming machines walk down their own unique path, separate from business devices. Sure, for CAD programs or medical imaging, the business user might want a GeForce3 graphics card. The mainstream business person, however, currently has little use for such things. But this will change. Because gaming has always ushered in far-reaching new technology, I have confidence that businesses will benefit.

Instant messaging. Almost everyone sees instant messaging as the next step in the evolution of email. Why mail when you can message? Instant messaging is the rage among home computer users and it's slated to be the rage at the office as well. One advantage to instant messaging is that it lessens the likelihood of a paper trail of incriminating or embarrassing email.

Keeping an eye on today's home computer and its users will give us all a greater insight into tomorrow's business computer and its users.