"Desktop PCs Are Dinosaurs of Tech Trade Show." So shouted one headline, summing up the angle on any number of similar news stories from this year's Comdex computer trade show. The buzz at the Las Vegas trade show was that PCs are out and portable electronic devices are in.
A new generation of "information appliances," they say, will soon make the desktop personal computer obsolete. These devices supposedly will flourish by being simpler, easier to use and less costly than PCs.
We'll be seeing more gadgets that are portable, wireless and special-purpose. In fact, that trend is already well established. Palm Pilots, super cell phones, pagers, MP3 players and digital cameras are just a few of the devices you can already lug around.
In the next generation, we'll start seeing some of these functions combined and a bit more connectivity introduced. Look for tablet-like devices that allow you to browse the Web, take notes, read and send e-mail and check your schedule. A detachable cell phone is likely to be part of the bundle.
We'll also probably start seeing changes in how some PCs are configured. One version is the so-called network PC that enables users to surf the Web and perform other limited functions. Such machines typically would not allow users to install software or insert disks. Think of something like WebTV, but with a better screen.
But the notion that any of these devices will replace the PC or make it obsolete is nonsense.
Sure, people want simplicity and ease of use. But given a trade-off between that and the full functionality of a personal computer, most people take the PC. Consider the simple task of Web browsing. A wireless Web tablet would be handy if you were bored in a meeting or riding the train. But would you really prefer that to a 17-inch or 19-inch desktop screen? Same for e-mail. How much typing do you want to do with a stylus or on a tiny keyboard?
Network PCs have been discussed for a couple of years now as a substitute for personal computers. The idea of a self-contained machine, without disk drives or external software, seems appealing. But in practice, network PCs are mere toys compared to their full-featured cousins.
At bottom, people will still do most of their work while seated at a desk. And for that, nothing beats a desktop PC.
That's not to say there won't be some changes. Flat-panel displays are still pricey, but they're a sure bet to someday replace the massive TV-like monitors now clogging the desktop.
The so-called systems unit, which houses the processor, memory and disk drives, is also likely to shrink considerably from its current boxy dimensions.
What we really need is a system that integrates the desktop with all the other devices we might need and want. Ideally, the listing of phone numbers stored in your cell phone would be updated automatically whenever you added one from your desktop PC. Ideally, your e-mail would be equally accessible from home, work, hotel or airport.
We seem to be heading in that direction with the growing number of services willing to house our data on the Internet. Under that scenario, the information devices--be they laptop, desktop, cell phone or personal digital assistant--become merely the way that we view our data.
Alas, a fully integrated network equally accessible by all our electronic toys seems far-off indeed. And even then, we'll still want a comfortable desk chair, a large screen and a flat work surface--if for nothing else than to provide a handy place to put our coffee cups.
So bring on all the information appliances you like. But does that mean the demise of the desktop PC? Hardly.