The PC of tomorrow will have more competition than ever in winning a place at the heart of your technological universe. But that doesn't mean that the PC will wither away into irrelevance -- far from it. Computers are shaping up to become ever more specialised, and although they'll appear in innovative new forms, even the traditional desktop system will be with us for years to come, say the senior executives and industry experts we spoke to. Nevertheless, a peek at your future PC may not reveal what you expect.
Eight-core processors, huge hard drives, the prospect of external graphics cards, and bigger and more affordable displays loom on the horizon. While some of the most tantalising elements, like 20-terabyte drives or flexible full-colour displays, are still a ways out, some of the must-have technology you've had your eye on may be closer than you first thought: next-generation notebooks with detachable mini displays, for instance, are just around the corner.
PCs: form follows function
Computers have been evolving into some radical designs -- such as Media Centre PCs and pint-size Shuttle systems -- that only a few years ago would never have left the lab. From Acer's 20.1in "laptop" (weighing 7.7kg) to Dell's XPS M2010 (a 20.1in notebook/desktop hybrid), oddball systems are beginning to look, well, a little less odd.
Still, Dell chief technology officer, Kevin Kettler, says that while designs like the M2010 are interesting exercises, they aren't quite the future. "[Traditional] desktops aren't going away any time soon," he notes. With emerging markets like China, demand for inexpensive PCs should stay strong.
Despite efforts like Intel's Viiv initiative, which seeks to standardise media PC components, few observers are especially bullish about entertainment PCs. Notes Kettler, "The next couple of generations of wireless [standards] will allow you to access any type of media, anywhere in the house." You simply won't need an entertainment PC stuck beside a TV.
Steve Kleynhans, vice-president of client computing at analysis firm Gartner, says that mobile PCs will continue along the two current primary design trends: ultraportables under two kilograms, and 15- to 17-inch desktop replacement notebooks pushing 3.5 to 4.5 kilograms, and mostly meant to be used while plugged in.
Scheduled for early 2007, Intel's fourth-generation Centrino notebook platform includes up to several gigabytes of fast NAND flash memory, which is expected to deliver faster boot times and application loading.
And don't forget the dazzle: Vista's SideShow technology will allow notebook makers to include a display on the lid of the notebook, much like the external display on a clamshell mobile phone. Want to check if you have an e-mail waiting? You won't even have to flip open the computer. PortalPlayer's Preface technology, expected in the first half of 2007, will work along with SideShow to provide a detachable display/PDA that you can use independently of the notebook.
Beyond the next few years, fanciful designs rule. Jerry Bautista, director of technology management at Intel's Microprocessor Technology Labs, thinks chips could be built into furniture or even woven into fabric: imagine a PDA or mobile phone that's part of your shirtsleeve.