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INDUSTRY ANALYSIS

A Year of Change for Personal Computing

Every few years we have to take a deep breath and get ready for change, especially now as the personal computer industry will be adjusting to accommodate the technology changes that have defined it for the last several decades.

We are entering another period of massive changes, which will be hitting several technologies and platforms with broad implications for the future market. These changes will affect everything from PDAs and smartphones, to laptops, desktops and the consumer-electronics market in general.

Last week, I addressed the consumer-electronics changes and identified HP as the most likely vendor to be driving the major changes, although companies like Intel, Via and Microsoft are clearly having an impact behind the scenes. This week, I’ll look at personal computers, PDAs and smartphones.

Long Live Smartphones

I just returned from moderating a panel on the future of handheld computing. On the panel was Joe Fabris (director of wireless marketing at PalmOne), Michael Parks (CIO from Virgin Mobile) and Dennis Boyle (principal and senior designer from IDEO Designs).

There was supposed to be a panelist from RIM, but that panelist pulled out. Speculation suggested that the panelist canceled the appearance because Nokia just licensed RIM technology from NTP — the firm suing RIM for intellectual property issues — and he was worried the audience would ask whether this means RIM is basically out of business.

It is a question I know a lot of people in this industry would like answered, especially now that RIM has lost the latest legal round and is being bypassed by at least the one big potential licensee. RIM is one of the movers in this segment, and this legal mess will have an impact on market direction.

Overall, the panel agreed that existing PDAs will continue to decline in favor of connected devices that will increasingly include phone capabilities. IT executives in the audience pointed out that the cameras and wireless capabilities increasingly built into these products will become security risks.

The panel also discussed Intel’s x86-everywhere initiatives and talked about whether these initiatives will have an impact on the mobile segment, which currently is based on ARM technology. The idea of a single set of tools that could be used for desktop development in addition to mobile-application development was compelling to the largely IT audience. But the panel felt that the power issues surrounding x86 in a mobile environment will prevent it from proliferating.

The Ultraportable Computer

The x86-everywhere discussion took us to the concept of ultraportable and modular computers, which are handheld machines that run Windows XP. As has been my experience in the past, the audience showed more interest in these emerging platforms than the panel did.

I believe this issue continues to showcase that there is an untapped market for these new machines if they can get through the barrier of experts who don’t see them as a viable form factor. This situation reminds me of Xerox Parc, the company that invented the mouse and graphical user interface but was cursed with executives who couldn’t see their potential.

In the end, the panel concluded that the future of handheld computers is in connected devices. Devices in this class that are not connected to a wireless network of some kind will become roadkill on the information superhighway. The wireless devices of the future will be able to move seamlessly between various wireless networking protocols and encompass the set of Bluetooth wireless accessories that will be interdependent on them.

Personal Computers

As we anticipate Microsoft’s Longhorn, the most dramatically changed operating system from Microsoft to date, the hardware that will support it is already being brought to market. Previously, AMD — with its lead partner Nvidia — got a jump on the segment by bringing the first general desktop 64-bit platform to market. Subsequent to this, Microsoft began signaling that while Longhorn would support 32- and 64-bit applications, the future is 64 bit.

Intel has several advantages in this race. One of them is its ownership of the platform that resides underneath the main processor. Intel basically owns the chipset layer that defines the personal computer. While there are other major players, particularly with Nvidia and Via, Intel has the largest market share on motherboard chipsets and is the company that sets the pace. Interestingly enough, Intel’s most aggressive play has been in the mobile market with a chipset bundle called Centrino.

Centrino is Intel’s laptop technology bundle, which includes the Pentium M processor, wireless networking technologies and the motherboard chipset. Intel Graphics chipsets are becoming increasingly common, and many actually see Intel Graphics as part of the Centrino bundle even though it really isn’t, yet.

On the desktop side, Intel just released two dramatic chipset improvements with the 915 and 925X chipset families. These replace older 800-series chipsets. In this case, what you want to remember is that the 915 chipset is the most stable business-focused technology, while the 925X is targeted at the performance market. Both chipsets remove several system-performance bottlenecks and are expected to showcase a significant jump in performance over preceding products.

Mammoth Industry Change

Intel also has an embedded wireless option that can turn the desktop PC into an access point. While this type of access point will be used primarily in the consumer and SOHO markets, it could find its way into medium business and remote offices for enterprises as an easy solution and create real issues for the standalone wireless access folks.

It is much easier to patch a PC right now than a typical access point, and security exposures are hitting both platforms. I should note that Apple is moving the other way with its Airport Express, creating an easy-to-use appliance that also has secondary benefits. I see value in both approaches and it will be interesting to see how the market moves.

Both of these new platforms will be enhancing the entertainment class of desktop personal computers led by the Windows XP Media Center Edition, which will help accelerate the movement of PCs from the office to the living room.

However this all works out, we are in the midst of mammoth industry change with massive improvements in connectivity, mobility, security and performance coming over the next 24 months. Hang on. It’s going to be an interesting ride.


Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.


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