As the PC turns 25 this month, both Microsoft and Intel think the machine still has some way to go before it goes the way of the Dodo.
In August 1981, IBM created the personal computer in a bid to break into the computer market--then dominated by Apple Computer and a slew of other machines. But what led the PC to its resounding success was the fact that IBM gave up some control of the PC architecture, allowing software companies and other hardware vendors to build products for the computing platform.
Because of its open architecture, the PC quickly became popular and cheaper for the masses to afford. It also democratized computing in a way its predecessors could not. By 1985, IBM managed to sell almost a million PCs a year, far exceeding its 250,000 target the company had aimed to achieve within the first four years.
Microsoft was the one of the first companies that took advantage of the PC's open architecture. Although it was Seattle Computer Products (SCP) that developed the original disk operating system (DOS), Microsoft licensed DOS from SCP and made it the underlying architecture of its early graphical Windows operating system. The next part of history is well-known. It was not long before Microsoft turned the PC into a productivity and entertainment tool.
Today, cellphones and personal digital assistants tout enough computing power to perform tasks that were once the sole domain of the PC, such as e-mail and Internet connection. Some soothsayers have thus predicted the demise of the PC.
Oliver Roll, general manager of Microsoft Asia-Pacific, begs to differ.
"The PC will go from strength to strength," he said. "Many more PCs will be sold to individuals and families who can't afford one today."
"What will be different is that [users] will have four to five devices, synchronized with one another [via a PC] in a very seamless way," Roll said. "You would choose to use a device based on what you want to do. Rather than devices taking center stage, individuals will take center stage and pick up the device that's most convenient to use at a particular point in time."
He added that PCs will continue to be relevant to those who need screen estate and computing power for tasks such as editing documents and running sophisticated software applications. "There will be times when the PC is absolutely the right device," Roll said.
Gary Willihnganz, Intel's Asia-Pacific director of marketing, concurred. The executive makes voice over IP (Internet Protocol) calls on his PC, and stays productive by running multiple applications on his system. "I cannot really open up any kind of application, other than simple text, on a [small PDA] screen," he said.
Roll added: "We are nowhere near the end of the PC. [It] is in its adolescence now, and it's got hundreds of years [more] to go."
While the PC has surged in popularity since its advent, the Microsoft executive noted that half of Asia's population still do not have access to a PC, simply because they cannot afford one.
Roll said: "If you ask a citizen in India if he wants a mobile phone or a PC, I bet he will choose the PC. That's because you can do so many more things with a PC than [a cellphone]."
"If you want to open your eyes to the Internet to learn, communicate, play games and educate your kids, you need a PC--you can't do [all of those with a mobile phone]," he added.
Willihnganz noted that while the benefits of the PC are undoubtedly positive, technology products produced by companies in wealthy countries might not fit the needs of those in developing markets. Some vendors have come up with new products to address such disparity. Intel, for example, has developed a Community PC that runs on a car battery and can operate in rugged environments.
"In many of the villages in India, electricity and utilities are pretty spotty. It's obviously very difficult for computer infrastructure to be maintained [in such environments]," Willihnganz said. "These computers have the ability to run longer on a car battery. They're also ruggedized, meaning they can work in inhospitable and dusty environments."
An Intel spokesperson in Singapore could not reveal the uptake of the Community PC, though he said: "The response to date from Intel’s channel partners has been strong--to the extent we're looking at piloting the Community PC in other markets in Asia-Pacific".
In addition, Willihnganz said that Intel has built a PC that targets farmers. First introduced in China last year, the Farmer PC is equipped with lower-end Intel processors and operated with home-appliance simplicity, and offers online access to agricultural market data as well as planting and cultivation tips.
Intel said the Chinese government views the Farmer PC as a way to increase the productivity of its workforce and reduce the technology gap between city and country.
Microsoft, too, has initiatives in place to address the needs of developing markets. Roll said the company recently introduced a program called Flexgo that allows the use of PCs on a pay-per-use basis.
Under the initiative, a consumer will pay 50 percent of the PC's cost, and buy units of usage time that is recorded by a meter in the machine. Once he has chalked up a certain amount of time units, he can claim ownership of the PC, according to Roll.
He added that a Flexgo trial was successfully concluded in Brazil, and will subsequently be extended to India, China, Malaysia and Mexico.
The Web 2.0 factor
Today, cutting-edge technologies such as Ajax, have made it possible to deliver rich applications--with user interfaces comparable to desktop applications--over the Internet. This has led some pundits to question the relevance of the PC in a Web 2.0 era.
But Dion Wiggins, research director and vice president of Gartner in Hong Kong, noted: "If you need a rich environment, you still need a more powerful device."
"I've got a top-of-line Windows Mobile device, and its browser still can't do what my PC browser can do. There's still a certain amount of limitations," he said.
Wiggins did not discount the possibility that mobile device browsers could be Ajax-capable one day. But even then, he noted, wireless connectivity must also be up to speed, since people are reluctant to download huge amounts of data through their mobile devices today due to bandwidth limitations.