Exploding the PC as we know it

EXE Magazine, January 1999

New Year is a time for predictions, the kind of stuff which is made fun of in the Ctrl-Break page a few years later. Well, I'll take on the challenge and start with a very bold prediction: the PC as we understand it will change beyond recognition. I'll even put a timeframe on that. It'll start to happen in about a year's time. Let's start by looking at where we are today. When I say ‘PC’, we all have a common general understanding of what I mean. Usually, a box which contains at least one CPU, some RAM, one or more hard disks, a network card, and a video card; the whole thing connected physically to some input/output devices such as a keyboard, a screen, a mouse, a network, etc. Not forgetting some kind of operating system – for desktop systems most likely a version of Windows or Unix.

In essence, the PC is a multi-purpose device containing all that is needed for most applications, from real-time embedded control systems up to accounting packages. And, when on the move, we just shrink everything in a laptop making a few compromises on the way.

Here is a refinement of my prediction: the PC architecture will be exploded. The different elements making a PC will be physically separated. The one missing technology today is cheap wireless links with sufficient bandwidth. Bluetooth affords that and it is already in the labs nearing the standardisation stage. Bluetooth is the codename for a technology. In short, it specifies a low-cost, small form factor, short range radio-link in the unlicensed band at 2.4 GHz capable of a gross data rate of 1 Mbps. To be more precise there's one data link of 721 Kbps (with a return channel of 56 Kbps) and three synchronous voice channels of 64 Kbps. It is maintained by Special Interest Group, which consists mainly of telecommunications and computing companies. The list of participants is long. More info can be found on the Bluetooth site itself (www.bluetooth.com) and elsewhere on the Web.

Initially we'll probably see a similar main box, and similar peripherals, but most if not all the cable will have disappeared. We'll use the new technology simply as a replacement for the bundle of cable dangling at the back of computers and to get rid of the line-of-sight requirements for the few current uses of infrared (IrDA). In a second stage, we'll start to discover new scenarios. We'll realise that we can use our favourite keyboard with whatever computer we want. We'll be able to roam around our offices and home and use whatever modem is in range to connect to the net. The impact will be greater for portable computers and electronic devices. For instance, we'll be able to check our email from our PDAs without having to take the cellphone out of our pocket, or finding a phone point. Still, if we prefer to use a keyboard on the very same PDA, we'll just use one – no connection required. The third stage will be the integration of devices not considered as standard peripherals today: PCs, PDAs, digital cameras, fixed phones... In this scenario, some appliances begin to appear, ie devices with one precise function, such as cameras.

That's the point where the PC and all its incarnations will move from the foreground to the background. New easy to use devices will appear with dedicated functions, which will just draw transparently on the power of the hidden computer infrastructure.

Astute readers will have realised by now that all this is great but 1 Mbps is not that much if we want to implement the most extreme scenarios. What will free this new power is a different type of software architecture. Instead of sending huge amounts of raw data, we need to send some more high-level data associated with some actions. This sounds quite like the early efforts of Novel with NEST or Microsoft with Microsoft At Works. Both failed. My second prediction is that these software efforts were too early. Re-read the NEST specifications and read the much more recent JINI specs from Sun. Surprised by the amount of similarities? I predict that JINI or a similar technology will be successful on this new distributed/disparate architecture of devices/appliances.

What is really exciting about this future is that there will be opportunities to create appliances with completely different hardware and software as compared to what exists today. This will give opportunities to small companies to become big and will force big companies to be innovative.

I believe that these two predictions are quite realistic. I haven't tried to make any forecasts as to when a wireless technology will offer bandwidth as large as what's currently available directly between CPU and RAM, for instance. That's still dreamland.

David Mery

(C)1999, Centaur Communications Ltd. Reproduced with the kind permission of EXE Magazine.