Sometime five to 10 years from now, your PC's processor likely will run at 20GHz and its hard disk will hold 20 terabytes of data. But beyond being faster and bigger, the PC probably won't be that profoundly different.
Numerous emerging technologies have the potential to influence the future course of PCs, but in the collective opinion of a variety of industry researchers, designers and analysts, PC changes will be adjustments, not radical alterations. PCs might come with a flat screen and a digital pen, but they'll still be used for writing letters, balancing the checkbook, checking email, shopping online, playing games and editing photos.
Companies with a vested interest in PCs, the direct descendants of the machine IBM introduced 20 years ago, have a strong financial interest in keeping their cash cow alive for decades to come. A new era in which PCs are woven into clothing or built into the refrigerator may be improbable, but companies hold out a host of promises on the horizon to keep buyers interested.
Microsoft, for one, isn't afraid to raise expectations for computers that not only won't crash but also will be able to fix themselves.
"I think we'll get to the point in five or six years that some machines will never have to reboot. In the 10-year time frame, we want that to be the majority of machines," said Steven Guggenheim, senior director of business management at Microsoft. "If you go out five to 10 years, computers should get to the point where they are almost self-healing."
Or not. "The machines are getting more complicated as fast as we try to stabilize things," said Jon "Hannibal" Stokes, co-founder and senior CPU editor for PC enthusiast site Ars Technica. "I wouldn't say in five years it's going to get a whole lot better."
Other expected changes could help PCs understand what people are trying to accomplish, make them sensitive to speech and gesture, and make them easier to use, researchers and executives say.
"We will crack the next-generation user interface," Compaq chief executive Michael Capellas said in an interview Wednesday in San Jose, California, during a party commemorating the 20th anniversary of the IBM PC. "It'll be touch. It'll be voice. That is the next frontier."
Those improvements, all requiring beefy processors, will be needed to help PC companies ensure themselves a future by keeping rival technologies from stealing the show.
With the addition of features such as email and Web browsers, devices including handheld computers, cell phones, Internet appliances and more powerful set-top boxes have begun encroaching on PCs' turf. Companies such as Oracle and Sun Microsystems would prefer people to have just a screen, keyboard and mouse connecting to a giant server somewhere on the far side of a network, not to a PC two feet away.
PC companies have contained those threats so far, though.
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates promises coming surprises. Desktops and laptops will be joined by a new standard shape, the tablet PC, Gates said. "This was tried before, but the planets are aligned this time," he said during a panel discussion at the 20th anniversary fete.
Insight 64 analyst Nathan Brookwood agreed with Gates, saying a tablet PC that can be carried to the easy chair likely will arrive in the next three or four years. "Anything that can bring the computer out of the computer room is going to be a big winner," he said.
Faster chips, bigger drives
Intel, one of the companies most deeply invested in extending the PC's lineage as long as possible, is working on making CPUs faster. By 2007, the company expects its processors will run at 20GHz, more than 10 times faster than current models.
Curiously, the company also is working on slower processors. "There is a growing demand for processors designed not necessarily on the maximum performance line," said Wilf Pinfold, business director of Intel's microprocessor research labs.
Hard disks likely will be a standard part of PCs for the next decade, but other forms of storage will arrive as well, said Robert Morris, director of IBM's Almaden Research Lab and vice president of the PC storage research division.
"We do see the disk drive going out for at least 10 years," doubling in capacity about every 12 months, he said. That means that by 2011, the average PC will come with about 20 terabytes of space, 1,000 times what today's machines have.
But the disk drive has limits. IBM is betting on a very different concept to take over: the "millipede," a device that uses an array of super-tiny arms that can sense the presence of atoms, Morris said. By marking or erasing a plastic surface, the millipede can store 400 gigabytes of data per square inch, a step ahead of the 60 gigabytes per square inch used by a hard drive with the densest information storage capability.
Currently, though, the millipede reads and writes information more slowly than hard drives do, Morris said.
Intel chairman Andy Grove prefers to focus on the promise of connecting PCs to a network. "I think the PC is becoming predominantly a communication device," he said. "Its utility depends on what it's connected to."
A new interface
Many expect progress in the long-hailed goal of making computers adapt to people more than the other way around.
Ted Selker, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, is working on a project in which a computer can figure out a person's intent by how they move their mouse over a Web page. "It knows that you have been to that Web site before just by mouse motion. It can tell whether you had a selection in mind that you didn't select," he said.
Intel agrees that PCs can anticipate what people want. "We have a pretty good feeling that in the future, devices will have a better understanding of the context in which they're being used," Pinfold said. For example, computers could recognize visual signals such as gestures or which way a person is facing. And watching lip movements could help cut through the noise that often hampers speech recognition.
Harold Hambrose, CEO of a company called Electronic Ink that tries to bend computers to the needs of the people who use them, disparages the current design of PCs.
"I find sitting at a specially equipped desk in front of some pretty ugly plastics and staring at a little window is a very unnatural event," he said.
But getting rid of this "shrine" of electronic gear and adapting computers to people will require subordinating technologists to ordinary human beings, Hambrose said. "We're not going to get very far until we start to factor those people into the equation."