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The post-PC era is upon us

What comes next?

Analysis IBM is trying to sell its PC business. Korea has already launched a programme called "The Post-PC Era." Jonathan Schwartz, president of Sun Microsystems, told the New York times: "We've been in the post-PC era for four years now." Can we really manage without the PC?

For rivals to IBM, the news that its ThinkPad range may be taken over by China's biggest PC builder, Lenovo - or another bidder - is good: less competition from the acknowledged market leader in portable PCs. HP and Dell, however, are whistling in the dark if they think this is going to ease pressure on them; quite the opposite is probably true.

For a start, the unpalatable truth is that the PC is in real danger of becoming an unsellable product.

At the moment, people still think they need a PC. But spyware and viruses and Internet worms and denial-of-service (DoS) attacks on large corporations are costing millions in hard currency. And they are also taking a more insidious toll: buyers are becoming reluctant to switch their machines on.

A brand-new notebook computer arrived at NewsWireless for test last week. The first thing we did with it was to connect to the Internet and download the Spybot spyware blocker, and AVG antivirus program. When they ran, the machine was already infected by six "suspicious" items of malware.

Freelance computer repair professionals are becoming a cottage industry, charging quite reasonable fees for coming around to do a sweep of malware on their neighbours' machines - a general backup/restore and sometimes even a complete re-install of Windows on machines which are running too slowly to be used, or which insist on dialling South American ISPs on premium phone lines, or which are sending spam messages on behalf of criminals on the other side of the globe - or have, quite simply, closed down and refuse to work.

And of course, the takeover of IBM's business will, almost certainly, lead to greater price competition, not less, for HP and Dell. China's reputation in electronics is not one of "go for the top quality, never mind the cost" and other PC makers and marketers will find the future tough.

Finally, the need for a huge, mega-powerful PC is getting harder to justify. Small, cheap information appliances based on Via's mini-ITX board, for example, can sit, silent and cool-running, out of sight in a cupboard, and handle much of the work that PCs traditionally do. Microsoft is betting a lot on the success of the Media Centre PC, which replaces a personal digital recorder and an MP3 storage/play unit - but which may not be any cheaper to run or install than several commercial PDR boxes.

So what are the alternatives? Far-seeing outfits like Xybernaut think that wearable electronics, and true mobility is the answer. Today, the wearable computing specialist has announced that it is setting up a Korean subsidiary, to take advantage of a Government sponsored development scheme based on little more than the death of the PC.

Korea is completely convinced that the day of the PC is over. Xybernaut said: "In a 2004 strategy document issued by the Korean Ministry for Information and Communication, the Republic of Korea created the IT839 Strategy and the 'Post-PC Era initiative' to maintain its leadership in information technology."

The plan is simple enough. Wearable computing, wireless and broadband everywhere, and RFID sensors to track the users and interface to them will be rolled out as quickly as possible.

The Wireless and broadband project, or WiBro, aims to produce ubiquitous internet. Korea expects 8m subscribers to Wibro by end 2006 - maybe sooner. Coupled to that will be a Telematics scheme. This will be the main and obvious carrot for Xybernaut: it aims to "establish Korea as a top five telematics market providing telematics "terminals" (devices) to 27 per cent of the total population by 2007" and it walks hand in hand with an RFID project, aiming at seeing a "ubiquitous" RFID sensor network by 2010.

There will also be digital multimedia services to the majority of homes, and at least 60 per cent of households will have a home network by 2007.

Frankly, nothing of Xybernaut's product range of wearable computing power looks all that "post-PC" - it's basically PC technology packaged differently. But this may be the point: instead of being a general purpose machine, this sort of hardware has clearly defined - and limited - functions.

The Intel vision of the PC was described by Centaur founder Glenn Henry as "a black hole" - this huge, all-powerful processor, carrying out all the cyber-functions that the user would ever want. No need for a modem chip; the Pentium's native signal processing capabilities already do that. No need for any sort of wireless: the CMOS radio Intel hopes to build will emulate any other device just by software. No need for interface cards: PCI Express and USB 2 use the PC chip itself to replace circuits ... and so on.

But the trouble with a device that can do everything, is that it can do anything. Anything, including spam, virus, spyware, and other malware, whether you intend it to, or not.

Switching from Windows to another OS - like, say Linux - merely postpones the problem. There are those who claim that Unix variants are inherently more immune to virus technology; others suggest that this merely reflects the priorities of the virus writers. Probably, if the world switched to Linux, they would quickly perfect their ability to fool Linux users into running their software.

More significant, in the long term, is IBM's perception that the days of corporate PC growth are over. As the New York Times put it: "IBM's retreat from the PC sector may be an irreversible transition from a world where corporate workplaces have personal computers on each desktop to one where corporate offices run on centralised computer systems with simple monitors on desks known as 'thin clients' that have network connections."

Xybernaut technology depends on a failed concept: the Microsoft Smart Display. But the reason the Smart Display failed, was simple enough: it was a thin client, in a world where it lost touch with its host if you moved out of wireless range.

In a ubiquitous wireless world, you are never out of range. The smart display today, turns into a useless lump if it can't see your home WiFi network; in the Korea post-PC era, this simply can't happen.

The bulk of the cost of a PC is the central processor. After that, the display, and then the battery swallow up the profit. But in the future, we can see the arrival of innovative personal displays that generate the effect of a full-size 20-inch display, hanging in the air in front of the viewer, or projected onto the wall, with minimal power needed. The processor in a smart display is little more powerful than that in a mobile phone. And the battery likewise, costs a fraction of what a PC battery takes to build.

Free the user of the need to carry a full-blown PC around town, and let us all carry something which we call a phone, but which has access to all available IT functions, and what happens to the market for big desktop iron?

Mostly, it goes into the server business. Servers made of Intel and AMD processors and supporting disks and network management software, will expand rapidly as the mobile IT dream unfolds. These things will be very restricted in what they do; they'll certainly refuse to run malware, whatever operating system they use.

But they'll store our music, our photos, our home videos, and our office data. They'll be multiply redundant; if one dies, nobody will ever know, as others seamlessly take over the work of rendering images for us, and backup systems imperceptibly restore damaged files.

Will this mean the end of PCs altogether? My own view: no; they'll always be around. There will always be people who want to do what the safe, orthodox systems can't provide; people who can't wait for a new function to be provided by central management, and people who are skilled enough to cope with the problems caused by keeping a general purpose system clean.

But, in much the same way that there are more skilled motor mechanics today than there were owner-drivers 80 years ago, these skilled folks will be, nonetheless, a minority. The typical car user barely knows how to pop the hood of the engine, never mind having the know-how to understand what we see if we do. Instead, drivers are skilled at finding their way to new destinations, using safe, but unexciting hardware to spin the tyres.

And that, I suspect is the future of the PC: a toy for gamers, a playground for experimenters, and a tool for big server/communications centre managers.

But for the rest of us, they'd be a hazard. We'd no more think of using one by the year 2010, than we think of buying a metal turning lathe today to make spare parts for our road vehicles.

And for big office workers, the option to play with dangerous toys like that will, quite simply, be taken away from us. It won't happen overnight, and whoever buys IBM's PC business will no doubt, make a lot of money out of the deal for the next two years. But within five years, the picture will change - enormously.

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