The PC Is Dead? Long Live the PC?

SAN FRANCISCO (08/28/2000) - The casket is ready. The grave is deep. The dirges are sounding. Enemies on every side declare the PC fatally fat and musclebound, awaiting what they insist will be its imminent death.

Buzzards hover above the corpse-to-be. Linux jocks claim their altruistic operating system can run for months without crashing and do everything an old-fashioned Windows or Mac machine can do and more--except run a program you really like or send decent output to your printer. Bandwidth mavens point to a world where all data will reside in some repository at the far end of a wire, from which you'll retrieve it instantly--as soon as you manage to get that fiber-optic cable installed. Wireless-phone promoters paint a similar scenario but advise you to skip the wire--if you can wait several years until they update their systems. And defenders of the average guy insist that cheap, simple new Internet appliances will make the world safe for those who refuse to learn about .ini files--unless they want to do anything more interesting than read text and send e-mail.

A Computer In The Fridge?

Any day now, say other vultures, the PC will give way to a box atop your TV. Or a PlayStation. Or a panel on your refrigerator. Or a screen phone clipped to your belt. Or maybe all those things at once, networked to each other and to a megaserver somewhere in the cybersphere. Yet for all the claims and predictions, the poor PC continues to fend off the Grim Reaper. What could possibly account for the incomprehensible-to-buzzards fact that PC sales keep increasing every year?

Flexibility, for openers. Nothing can match the PC's adaptability. Turns out that in a world where devices proliferate, the PC is useful as a humble peripheral to all of them. What else can serve as a hub for everything from a Palm organizer to a cell phone to a digital video camera? Until every digital device comes with its own Internet address and access to fast connections, the PC's speed and storage remain unbeatable.

And PCs keep getting cheaper and faster. Omit a major component in the interest of price, as Net appliances do by eliminating the hard disk, and usability suffers. The defining elements of a PC--local storage and the ability to run programs offline--turn out to be major assets. That's one reason the Palm, which has both, is so popular. Add an external keyboard, and the Palm becomes even more PC-like.

Omnipresent = Omnipotent

Then there's ubiquity: Since PCs are everywhere, programmers can depend on them to run creations like Napster and Gnutella. But who's going to expend a lot of effort developing programs for some Internet appliance with 623 users? Though much programming creativity has migrated to the Internet, the Web experience on a PC remains superior to what it is on any other platform--because the PC is the platform most sites are designed for. Those who natter about PC substitutes ignore the power of the PC's installed base of users, programmers, peripherals, and drivers.

Talk is cheap. For years I've been hearing about the imminent arrival of wonderful Internet appliances, e-mail devices, Web phones, and the like. The products that actually arrive are far less wonderful. Almost inevitably, they flop in the marketplace when they turn out to be overpriced and overhyped.

The PC desperately needs to be more reliable, easier to use, and more secure.

But new devices are not necessarily more reliable or simpler. My Sprint PCS Wireless Web phone fails to connect to the Internet far more often than my PC does. Slow communications, limited graphics, and serious browsing constraints frequently make the Web experience with a Palm or a wireless phone downright annoying.

And the PC need not die for the competition to flourish. Let a thousand flowers bloom! Bring on a pocketable unit that combines a Web-connected cell phone with an organizer and a detachable wireless keyboard! Bring on digital TV and electronic picture frames and e-books!

But don't imagine that they'll kill off the PC anytime soon.

PC World contributing editor Stephen Manes is a cohost of Digital Duo, a series appearing on Public Television stations nationwide. For program information, see www.digitalduo.com.

The poor PC has enemies everywhere, but its flexibility and ubiquity keep the Grim Reaper away.

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