NEW YORK — In the metaphor-mad world of technology, there's a new phrase making the rounds, one that experts believe describes the direction that personal computers are taking.
After 20 years as an independent box, the PC is evolving into a control center that ties together the phone, TV, thermostat and other electronic devices in every room in the house.
An information furnace, they call it.
"It's equivalent to central heating," said Avram Miller, Intel's vice president of corporate business development. "This analogy with power is very good. If you look at electricity, electricity was designed to do only one thing--lighting. Clearly, there's a lot more to it than that now."
Like a furnace, the PC of the future could be hidden from view, in the basement, a closet or drawer. The devices it links would take different shapes depending on their use and location. A unit in the den might have a keyboard and screen while one in the living room might be a big screen with stereo speakers and a player for programs on compact disc.
The incorporation of telephone-answering machines into consumer PCs last summer was an early example of this trend, which will be a key topic at the annual PC Expo this week at New York's Jacob Javits Convention Center.
Intel CEO Andrew Grove has titled his keynote speech for the show "The Ubiquitous Information Appliance."
The acceleration of the trend is important for Intel to drive demand for advances in its key product--the microprocessor or "brain" of a PC.
Packard Bell Inc. earlier this month rolled out PCs with built-in TV and radio receivers as well as phone answering and fax capabilities. With them, a technician played a Bach compact disc, the radio and TV and worked on a word-processing program simultaneously.
It's not just today's electronic items that could be hooked up but those on the drawing board of technologists and inventors. Last week, Timex Corp. and Microsoft Corp. even demonstrated a watch that can take in messages from a computer.
"One of the devices that's interesting, we call it an I-pad, an information pad," Miller said. "It would be a device that has a flat-panel screen. You can write on it, touch it. You might be able to speak into it and it might speak back. It would be wireless, cheap and have different forms in the house."
Some early forms of an "I-pad" are Apple Computer Inc.'s Newton, Motorola Inc.'s Envoy and IBM's Simon devices, which have both computing and communication features.
"You will see all kinds of combinations be possible," said Safi Qureshey, chief executive of AST Research Inc. in Irvine. "We want to provide the glue so the user can go in between all of these different access mechanisms."
The concept of a computer network in the home is rooted in the workplace. Portable computers, for instance, linked to the main one in an office are allowing more people to work at home or on the road.
"The same technologies are going to be used in the home environment," said Alan Soucy, vice president of mobile computers at Zenith Data Systems. "They're going to be repackaged, more specific, more like an appliance."
The vision isn't just Intel's or the computer industry's. At a cable TV trade show last month, General Instrument Corp., the leading maker of set-top channel controls, described a plan for "component" TVs built around a computer-like box. The monitor--which in time will be a flat panel screen--and game player, video recorder or telephone would all be separate pieces.
"Exactly how much it all gets centralized in one place, I'm a little hard pressed to predict right now," said Jeff Roman, vice president of technology and new business development for General Instrument.
The first personal computer sold to the general public, the Altair 8800, appeared in Popular Electronics magazine in December, 1974. It was a box of circuits and lights that cost about $250 but had no software or screen and required 50 commands, executed by flipping switches, just to get started.
Today, the most popular PCs take just a few minutes to set up, have dozens of megabytes of software already installed, and can link through a phone line to millions of others worldwide.
Very few people anticipated the computers of today in 1974. Even fewer know what to expect in another two decades. Something as futuristic as an information furnace, while still vague, is probably only a decade away. There is certainty in the industry only about the next year or two.
"It's not possible to conceive 20 years from now," said Intel's Miller. "The computers of 20 years from now will probably be 10,000 times more powerful than they are today."