Finding the killer touch

Finding the killer touchThe cheap, simple PC is about to step into your lives. Commoditisation is the key, says David Manners
The future of the PC could change this year. Instead of racing up the Hz and bytes trail it could become a cheap tool to be bought for under ?100 as a stand-alone, or incorporated as an extra feature into loads of other products such as TVs, telephones, set-top boxes, remote controls and VCRs.
The moves to commoditising the PC look irresistible, and the strongest of them is the move to cheap microprocessors.
New Celerons at 400MHz are being flogged for ?50 and AMD and Cyrix are selling equivalents cheaper. The most expensive component in a PC is almost a commodity.
But think what would happen if we get the universal microprocessor that is promised by the Silicon Valley start-up Transmeta backed by Microsoft co-founder, multi-billionaire Paul Allen.
After all, Linus Torvalds the inventor of the free Linux operating system, now works for Transmeta. Could he and Transmeta be hatching the ultimate free PC or embedded PC?
After all, if a universal micro – capable of running any application whether written for Unix, the MacOS or Windows – were licensed freely, it could be produced like bottle tops for next to nothing in giant Asian mega-fabs.
With the hardware costing a few tens of dollars and the Linux OS available free, and with Java and Netscape navigator available free – the nearly-free PC is almost with us. In a subsidised form it already is.
Commoditisation might mean that PCs will be tailored to the needs of consumers, easy to use, performing simple functions like email, word processing and web browsing efficiently and reliably, sending error messages in clear comprehensible English, and crash-proof.
Commoditisation might mean that these machines will get cheaper to produce by 30 per cent every year like other electronics goods, and that manufacturers will pass on these cost reductions to consumers.
Commoditisation might mean the end of the creeping obsolescence of PCs as new, more powerful models running new software make last year’s machine old hat.
If PCs are just going to provide email, word processing and web browsing, then they can be made on a single chip and sold as cheap consumer items called ‘information appliances’ or can be incorporated into TVs, set-top boxes, or even telephones. At last, simple PC/IT technology may get into the majority of homes.
It has taken a long time. Back in the 70s the French government tried to kick-start the process with the ‘Minitel’ data terminal, and the UK tried to do the same with Teletext.
Like many government schemes of that era, people liked them, but no one could find a way to make money from them.
Then came the runaway success of the mobile phone and everyone was carrying around sophisticated technology. But would mobile phones have succeeded if they’d been sold at cost?
Will the commoditised PC be the vehicle which finally turns on the non-techie majority to IT? Has the PC’s future already been overtaken by events?

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