A look back at the PC future that wasn’t

Many of the resellers and IT managers heading to Comdex Fall in Las Vegas, Nev. next week will be looking for what’s new. Last year, several miles from the show floor, I got a peek at what’s next.

At least, I thought that’s what it was. I was invited to see a series of PC prototypes that had been created as part of an Intel hardware developer initiative. It was called something like the Innovative PC program (the original Web link, developer.intel.com/easeofuse/innpc.htm no longer works, and I can’t find it on their site map), and it featured both obscure industrial design companies and household names. Intel held the event not at the Las Vegas Convention Centre but in the more luxurious Venetian Hotel, which I took to imply that we were on the midst of a PC renaissance. This was a chance to see innovation up close, a radical rethinking of how PCs should look and feel.

Even if I didn’t see myself using some of the hardware on display, I liked what I saw. There was an orange-coloured PC from NEC Computer, which featured a wireless keyboard and mouse. A company called Fiori showed off Akriru, which substituted screws for polypropylene foam to keep chips, motherboards and other components sealed air-tight but allowing snap-open access.

Perhaps best off all was a PC from Hewlett-Packard called Deep Forest, which used Intel’s Pentium 4 processor and the AGP4X graphics chipset to handle the increasingly heavy graphics load involved in Web browsing. The PC had seven USB (Universal Serial Bus) slots for expansion options. The cool part was the design itself: it measured 13 inches by 10 inches by 4 inches, and looked sort of like the Superman lunchbox I used to carry to school as a kid. It could work horizontally or vertically, like a little minitower.

I left the concept PC lab looking forward to a year full of imaginative new desktops. Since then, I haven’t seen anything close hit the market.

Although I appreciated the fact that the Intel event was only a forum for experimental designs that needed further refinement, it is disappointing that many of these sorts of ideas haven’t been developed into commercially viable systems. Although wireless devices seem poised for significant growth in the long-term, there are still many enterprise users — yes, even “knowledge workers” — who are not particularly mobile. Desktops will continue to play a large role in these environments, and there are enough people suffering from eye strain, repetitive stress injuries and stiff necks that there has to be a way to make them easier to use. Of course, there is more to a PC than ergonomics, but advancements in processing power shouldn’t necessarily mean the enclosures themselves have reached a plateau.

Some companies, like Apple, continue to take risks, though it would be nice to see design innovation come from a company with more significant market share. Compaq, in fact, has done some good work in the creation of the Evo line, a sleek, stylish series that could offer some lessons to HP, which is still busy reorganizing products like the Brio and Vectra. The biggest void lies within IBM, which recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of its first PC. At Communications 2001 Wednesday IBM Canada’s Shahla Aly reiterated Big Blue’s current message that we are entering a post-PC era, “though the PC isn’t dead.” What a great way of covering all your bases. It’s no wonder IBM has gotten more press this year on the history of its desktop line than its current crop.

Next week’s Comdex will no doubt center around security and Web services, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for companies and inventors who haven’t abandoned the evolution of the PC. These may be tough times for R&D spending, but my brief glimpse at the potential next-generation desktops have convinced me there is plenty of innovative development still to come.

sschick@plesman.com

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