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Replace my computer with an iPod? I don’t think so…

Walter Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal penned an article the other day about how the Personal Computer era may be ending, to be replaced by … I’m not really sure, I guess he’s saying purpose built devices for particular purposes. Actually, the way I read his article, I think he’s saying that the “component build” model appears to be a poor one to use for things like iPods, but the technology media seems to have picked up on this being someone yet again predicting the end of the personal computer.

I’m pretty sure that Mr. Mossberg didn’t actually intend to predict the end of the personal computer. That’s been done so many times before its almost laughable. Network Computers were hyped and died in the mid ’90s. We’ve had several generations of game consoles that were supposed to kill the personal computer. And now ubiquitous devices like iPods and web browser/camera/music player/pda/cell phones are going will be the death nell that removes that machine from under your desk.

Bill Gates has responded to this kind of thing before, and apparently he’s written a letter to the WSJ for this one (although I’m not a WSJ subscriber, so I can’t read it). To be honest, Bill, you are wasting your time.

Over-hyped pundits have predicted the death of foundational technologies before. The death of the mainframe has been imminent for 25 years now, and not only are they still around, but they are taking on new and varied roles. Personal computers are likewise here to stay. Their role will undoubtedly change- and that’s worth understanding. To do that requires first understanding what defines a personal computer.

A PC isn’t a certain size of box, or a particular operating system: it can be running OS-X, Windows, Linux or something else and it can still be a PC. It isn’t something running a specific processor, either: Intel, PowerPC, AMD- they can all work in PCs. A personal computer is defined instead by a set of characteristics that all resolve to one word: flexibility.

  • Flexible hardware: A personal computer’s hardware can be altered by its owner. Memory can be added, disk storage changed, video altered, or completely new features added that were never originally planned by the manufacturer. The platform must support third party alternatives or additions
  • Flexible OS: A personal computer allows the owner to change the operating system it uses, and in fact to install an OS never originally anticipated by the manufacturer
  • Flexible application platform: A personal computer’s operating system has no constraints on what type of applications can be run, and has support/aids for third party development (E.G.: documented APIs, development tools)

Some of this flexibility can be constrained for some personal computers (E.G.: Macintosh) and the machine can still fit the model: but if two or more of the above areas of flexibility are taken away, its not a PC any more.

The flexibility that is a personal computer’s strength is also its greatest weakness. Purpose built devices will always perform their more restricted functions with greater ease and reliability. Take a music device like the iPod for example. There are basically only five or six functions the device has to support: pause, play, volume up, volume down, choose a menu item. And all the thing does is play music: no confusion there. A personal computer can play music, but the provisions for choice can cause users to be confused. So if all you want to do is play music…an iPod is a better choice.

But what manages the interface of an iPod to the rest of the world? A personal computer. I’m sure some people will say “But what if my iPod had wifi?”, to which I’d ask…do you really want to browse the net using a two inch screen? And do you really want to consign your music (or video collection) to a single manufacturers device…forever? Likewise, if I have a personal digital assistant, chances are that I don’t use it to type letters: for that, I hook the PDA to my computer and use more capable software. The personal computer won’t be replaced, it will be joined as part of a virtual network of more purpose-built devices. The PC will act as a hub, ensuring the propriatary nature and limited capabilities of the dedicated devices don’t ultimately result in their owner’s losing the ability to choose for themselves how their data is used.

Technology changes at an astounding pace, as do the needs of the users of that technology. A personal computer has the flexibility to “morph” itself to serve completely novel purposes that can’t even be envisaged today. And that capability means, to my thinking at least, that personal computers are not going anywhere- not in the home, and not in the office.

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