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Tech 101 | PC Focus

Even With New Technologies, PC Still a Must

October 19, 2000|LAWRENCE J. MAGID | larry.magid@latimes.com

With all the hype about PDAs, Web-enabled mobile phones and Internet appliances, it's tempting to view the PC as passe--or, as my kids say, "so 20th century."

Although IBM-compatible PCs have been on the market for 19 years, they are hardly on the way out. In fact, Gartner Dataquest analysts forecast worldwide sales of personal computers to increase steadily over the next few years from just under 156 million machines sold this year to more than 180 million in 2001, with an estimated 232 million in 2002.

And while personal computers still have a way to go before they're as ubiquitous as telephones and VCRs, they're well past the halfway point in terms of household penetration. Gartner estimates that 61.7% of U.S. households have a personal computer. But why do we need to keep using PCs now that an increasing number of tasks that used to require a desktop machine and special software, can be done with portable gadgets or over the Internet?

For instance, you can access http://www.britannica.com or http://www.encarta.com from any Web-enabled device instead of using a CD-ROM on the PC. You no longer need income tax software thanks to sites such as http://www.turbotax.com and http://www.taxcut.com. Sending e-mail no longer requires a PC or special software, thanks to sites such as http://www.hotmail.com, which can be accessed from a cell phone or TV set.

But the beauty of a PC is that it can be nearly all things to all people. For some, it's a game machine. For others, it's a financial calculator. Many people use it as a glorified typewriter. But it can also be used as a radio, TV set, telephone or travel agent. Stick some extra plug-in cards in the PC's slots and suddenly you have a video editing system that rivals commercial products that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Admittedly, the PC's versatility also is one of the reasons it's so complicated and unreliable.

And then there's the Internet. The very technology that some think might kill the PC is actually its greatest ally. While it's true that people who just surf the Web and send e-mail could get by with a less versatile Internet appliance, the vast majority of Internet users still opt for a PC even though there are cheaper, easier and even more reliable ways to surf the Net.

For one thing, the PC is still a must for many Web-based services. I have a Microsoft Web TV in my living room, which is OK for reading text or looking at graphics on a Web site, but it doesn't let me listen to, or watch Real audio or video programs, or even let me use Microsoft's own Windows Media player.

Speaking of audio, just about everyone likes to weigh in on whether it's legal or ethical to download music from Napster, but only people with PCs actually get to do it. Of course, you can listen to MP3 files on hand-held devices such as the Diamond Rio, but guess how you get those files from the Internet into the device? It's the PC.

Ironically, even some of the devices that people can use in lieu of a PC make the PC an even more compelling device to have around the house. Try entering hundreds of names and phone numbers in a Palm organizer without downloading them from a PC.

Even some equipment that is unrelated to computing can require a PC. I have a device that lets me broadcast radio programs from home. I had it for months without even knowing it had a serial port until something went wrong. When I called the company's tech support department, they told me to connect it to my PC to download updated software from the Internet.

My purpose in making these comments is not to deride some of the emerging technologies. But like a well on a farm, a furnace in the garage or a stereo system in the living room, the PC will remain viable despite the proliferation of other devices.

*

Lawrence J. Magid is a syndicated technology columnist. He can be heard between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour.

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