posted by Howard Fosdick on Mon 27th Aug 2012 13:53 UTC
IconThe dream of inexpensive computing for everyone has been with us since the first computers. Along the way it has taken some unexpected turns. This article summarizes key trends and a few of the surprises.

This article is about consumer computers. If a computer is a "general purpose processing device that runs different programs to perform varied functions," smartphones, with their thousands of apps, certainly qualify. Single purpose devices do not. These include music players (like iPods) and e-readers (like Kindles), as well as embedded devices. Yet the line isn't always clear -- witness how the Kindle Fire crosses over from mere e-reader to a general-purpose tablet.

The Personal Computer

The first big step toward computing for everyone occurred in the late 1970s with the wide popularity of the Apple II and TRS-80. Then the IBM PC and clones came out in the early 1980s and dominated.

Computers became accessible to millions for the first time. Yet the millions had to be well-heeled. In 1977 an Apple II cost $1,298 US. In 1997 I bought a Gateway Pentium II with monitor for $3,228 US. Both prices are equivalent to over $5,000 in today's dollars. Personal computers? Yes. But only for those willing and able to buy an expensive tool.

Early PCs
Computers for the Well-heeled Masses (Apple II and TRS-80)

PCs have become much more affordable over the years, so units shipped (in thousands) have grown nearly every year since the 1970s:

PC Sales
Source: Reimer's Blog

Yet some other device is making computers more popular with the general public than the venerable PC. Let's talk about...


Back in the 1990s, who would have thought that smartphones would popularize computing?

Today they're ubiquitous. Many who carry them would never touch "a computer." Two-thirds of all phones sold today in the U.S. are smartphones, and over 450 million devices shipped in 2011. Sales surpassed PCs in 2010.

Computerizing your phone adds a photo camera, video camera, web browser, stereo, watch, locational and positional sensing, voice recorder, texting, email -- plus several hundred thousand downloadable apps (programs). You can swipe QR codes, and soon you'll swipe your phone instead of your credit card. You carry it in your pocket or purse.

Smartphones have their limits. Small size means no power touch-typing. The screen is small too, even if you can turn it sideways. This article argues that phones make a poor substitute for laptops and desktops as your sole point of Internet access.

And how about privacy? You would think that "Few people would willingly carry around a device that tracks their movements, records their conversations, and keeps tabs on all the people they talk to." But they do in the U.S. This scandal has not even caused a hiccup in the public's adoption of these little pocket spies.

We are in the midst of a shift to the mobile internet. Smartphones lead the way.

Computers for Everyone


If you asked the experts twenty years ago what would become the ubiquitous computer of 2012, many would have answered: the TV. Everybody's got one, and we watch them five hours a day. Plus in the 80's and 90's we connected up all our TVs, by cable or satellite. So why didn't the TV become the computer for the masses?

It all comes down to competing technologies. No single one dominates. The options are:
  1. Intelligent set-top boxes from the cable or satellite company
  2. Specialized media provision and control computers like TiVo or Roku
  3. Add-ons from computer vendors like MSN TV or Apple TV
  4. TV-connected game boxes with general purpose capabilities (eg, Xbox recently added Internet Explorer and SmartGlass)
  5. Hooking up the TV to your personal computer (using the HDMI ports and Windows Media Center or MythTV)
  6. Replacing the TV altogether by watching shows on your PC
  7. Intelligence built into the TV set itself

TV manufacturers are evolving the set you buy into a full-fledged TV/computer: the smart TV. Smart TVs include built-in HD camera, microphones, facial tracking, speech recognition, and requisite processors. Cost is high but dropping fast. Given that smart TVs could monitor their watchers like Orwell's telescreens, you'd think privacy would be a concern. I believe that the public's blasé reaction to the smartphone privacy scandals prove they will gladly submit to whatever spying they must to get their enhanced TV. Just ensure the exposés hit after smart TVs have won a naive public's acceptance.

With no one technology yet dominating, expect continued sorting as the winner(s) emerge. I'm betting on smart TVs as prices drop.


Remember netbooks? When small laptops were rechristened "netbooks" in 2007, the hype exploded. Then the iPad killed it all off. Articles today have titles like "Are Netbooks Dead? The Prognosis is Grim" and "Nothing Can Revive Netbook Sales."

I think the issue here is one of terminology. I don't know about "netbooks" or "notebooks" or "ultras" or "Airs" per se, but I believe it's a safe bet that people will continue to buy small laptops. Small laptops, full-sized laptops, desktops, smartphones, tablets, and more will all co-exist in the marketplace for years to come.

These sales figures show that the current excitement over smartphones and tablets is very well justified. And that millions continue to buy laptops, desktops, and, yes, even small laptops:

Device Sales
Source: PC World and Canalys 2012


Finally! An always-on device with PC capabilities, longer battery life, better portability, and a touch interface. Several vendors introduced tablets over the years -- notably Microsoft with their Tablet PC a decade ago -- but it took Apple's iPad for mass acceptance.

The big breakthrough is the user interface. No keyboard or keypad, mouse or stylus; just touch the screen. Sound is key with built-in speakers and microphones.

TechCrunch says iPad sales will reach 66 million this year. Forrester Research predicts that tablet sales will balloon to 375 million in 2016. They believe tablets will become the "preferred, primary device for millions of people around the world."

Could be. I love my tablet! But different devices provide different benefits. For office work I'd rather have a full-sized traditional keyboard and screen. I certainly don't want to do remote IT support on a tablet, like this poor guy! For watching TV and movies at home I prefer my big screen TV. And I can't see people replacing their handy little pocket smartphones with tablets. There is room for many different devices in our lives.

The Primary Computer of the Future?

Small Super-cheap Computers

Let's wrap up by talking about small computers with traditional interfaces. 

The non-profit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Foundation started a project in 2006 to develop a small, consumer-friendly laptop costing less than $100 US. This would be mass-produced and purchased by governments to spread educational computing around the world. Netbooks and tablets ultimately doomed OLPC.

The Raspberry Pi computer is OLPC's spiritual heir. It, too, is underwritten by a charitable foundation with educational goals.

The Pi is the size of a deck of playing cards. The Model B includes an ARM 700 MHz processor, VideoCore IV GPU, the Broadcom BCM2835 System on a Chip, 256M memory, HDMI video/audio output, two USB ports, and an RJ45 Ethernet port. It uses an SD card for permanent storage and runs Linux from the card. It lists for $35 US.

Given that Raspberry targets consumers, I'd recommend consumer packaging. Add a case. Offer a bundle that includes the required cables, charger, mouse, keyboard, etc. Consumers want plug and go, not a naked circuit board.

Raspberry Pi
Raspberry Pi             Source: BBC News

Expect more super-cheap PCs soon. I wonder if embedding the PC into the monitor will become more popular as footprints shrink? But then you lose the benefits of componentization.

Perhaps we could standardize PC enclosures and put a snap-on mounting bracket on the back of all displays. Just pop the PC on or off of the rear of the display. This retains the benefits of individual components while removing the PC from the desktop. Anything that's not wireless plugs in behind the display. Simple. (Just locate the snap-on PC away from the monitor's vents and hot spots!)

Big Changes

Popular computing has taken a turn few predicted. Smartphones -- and perhaps tablets -- are becoming everyman's computer. The implications are huge:

  • OS market shares for consumer computers are changing fast. Windows lost out on smartphones and tablets to Android and iOS (so far). My recent OS News article Smartphones Reignite the OS Wars analyzes the impact.
  • Windows also faces market share challenges in smart TVs and super-cheap computers like the Pi.
  • Intel's dominance is threatened as the ARM chips in handhelds start to drive the processor chip market. AMD is floundering.
  • Computer makers that haven't transitioned to handhelds -- like Dell -- are threatened too.
  • The user interface of smartphones and tablets challenges that of laptops and desktops. Touch and sound replace keyboards and mice.
  • In response, OS vendors have changed their operating systems to encompass handhelds (eg: Windows 8 UI, Ubuntu Unity, GNOME 3).
  • The mobile internet is a new paradigm of personal computing. It also raises malware and privacy issues that are today largely unaddressed.
  • Social networking is integral to the emerging mobile internet.

I'll explore some of these trends in future articles.

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Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) supports databases and operating systems. He also consults for vendors as an industry analyst. Read his other articles here. Photos were retrieved from Wikipedia (except for the Raspberry Pi).
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