The PC is dead, long live the PC.
The era of the PC as a standalone box is over, according to Intel, which is now putting the weight of its marketing muscle behind the idea of the PC as the centre of a variety of gadgets -- what it calls the "extended PC". Intel is touting its new PC processor, the 1.7GHz Pentium 4, as both a home gateway for Internet access and a hub for everything from video editing to music playing to Internet telephony.
Consumer electronics that were once standalone, such as video cameras and music players, are now converging in what Intel calls a "digital content spiral". "We see [the PC] as the centre for this digital content spiral," said Mark Atkinson, Intel's technical marketing manager for client platform and networking.
The "extended PC" idea is partly Intel's answer to the perennial question of what to do with all that processing power. After all, people are still quite happily doing word processing and email on 75MHz PCs. A faster processor, Intel argues, means you can also process the footage from your camcorder and press it onto CD-ROMs for the relatives, or swap music files with friends and drop them onto a portable device to take with you.
Intel has traditionally seen technologies such as 3D graphics and streaming media as driving demand for faster processors, software developed in the Intel Architecture Labs is passed on to the development community to drive these technologies. But recently developments in graphics processing units such as Nvidia's GeForce 2 and 3 chips have made the processor speed less critical.
Nvidia's European marketing director, Alain Tiquet, said that while the CPU is still important for games that have to make many computions based on the laws of physics, but after a point the CPU speed has less effect. "Last year we tested the GeForce 2 with a Pentium III and found that once the PIII got above 600MHz there was not too much difference in game play."
While still pushing the need for faster processors for games and streaming media, Intel is now looking at other killer applications for its processors. Home gateways, with gadgets such as Web pads connecting to the main PC to surf the Web, are one such area.
But this course is taking Intel into some uncharted waters, which could make things more complicated than the consumer-friendly packaging might suggest. For one thing, Intel is intent on pushing an emerging connection platform called USB 2.0 for devices such as Web cams, storage devices and other peripherals, even though the rival FireWire (also known as IEEE 1394) is beginning to look like a de facto standard.
Most recently, Microsoft revealed that it would not support USB 2.0 at the OS level, but would support FireWire. Intel became a prime mover in the USB movement after becoming disenchanted with the licence fees necessary with FireWire, which was invented by Apple, but in the mean time FireWire has become a standard with camcorders and is included on many Apple and Sony computers.
Intel is pressing ahead with USB 2.0, despite Microsoft's caution. The company sees USB 2.0 being added on to PCs later this year, and ultimately being integrated onto chipsets -- making it extremely inexpensive.
"For a business environment, it will definitely be USB 2.0," Atkinson told ZDNet UK. "1394 will continue to be there for consumer connectivity. The main FireWire driver today is camcorders."
Many industry observers, however, say FireWire will be increasingly used for such applications as storage and networking in the absence of another high-speed standard.
Intel also hopes to ramp up wireless LAN (IEEE 802.11b) for the consumer market beginning later this year. Wireless LAN is currently used by Apple, with its AirPort system, for connecting laptops to the Internet without having to plug them in, but a larger market could be in connecting multiple PCs in the home and office.
Wireless networking will look more appealing to consumers as they acquire more than one PC, or buy a PC-like device such as a Web tablet, say industry observers. However, Europeans are much less likely than Americans to have more than one PC in the home.
Intel originally pushed the Home RF standard for home use, touting Wireless LAN as a business product, but has changed tack now that 802.11b is catching on in the US. Intel won't introduce any Home RF products in Europe, instead focussing on Wireless LAN.
Intel hopes to see the wireless networking market grow in Europe late this year. "We will see the usage models appear for wireless LAN this year," said Intel's Atkinson. He said the market will also be given a boost by the emergence of Bluetooth, which lets peripherals connect wirelessly to gadgets and PCs.
So the new P4 will run at 1.7GHz! -- yes, it will be faster than almost any other single processor system. And it will be half the price of the chips inside current P4 based systems -- yes, but a good 19 inch display will cost the same. Guy Kewney thinks the real battle will be down at the low end, as users increasingly question the value of having a machine faster than 600 MHz, and instead, try to see how many machines they can get for a thousand dollars. Go to AnchorDesk UK for the news comment.
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