The 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
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
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.
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:
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
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
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
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
It all comes down to competing technologies. No single one dominates.
The options are:
- Intelligent set-top boxes from the cable or satellite company
- Specialized media provision and control computers like TiVo or Roku
- Add-ons from computer vendors like MSN TV or Apple TV
- TV-connected game boxes with general purpose capabilities (eg,
Xbox recently added
Internet Explorer and SmartGlass)
- Hooking up the TV to your personal computer (using the HDMI ports
and Windows Media Center or MythTV)
- Replacing the TV altogether by watching shows on your PC
- 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 blasÃ© reaction to the smartphone privacy scandals
prove they will gladly submit to whatever spying they must to get their
enhanced TV. Just ensure the exposÃ©s hit after smart TVs have won a naive
With no one technology yet dominating, expect continued
sorting as the winner(s) emerge. I’m betting on smart TVs as prices
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
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:
World and Canalys 2012
Finally! An always-on device with PC capabilities, longer battery life,
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.
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
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
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 700MHz 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.
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.
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 inbehind the display.
Simple. (Just locate the
snap-on PC away from the monitor’s vents and hot spots!)
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
- 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
- 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).