Is it time to scrap your PC or dump your investments in the likes of PC kingpins Intel and Microsoft Corp.? For five years a vocal melange of pundits and industry leaders have been predicting the death of the PC. It's complicated, expensive, unreliable, and underutilized, they say. IBM Corp., the mainframe computer giant that legitimized the personal computer with the introduction of the IBM PC in 1981, included a section in its annual report last year titled, "The PC Era Is Over." Scores of companies are racing to introduce PC replacements. Computer trade shows such as Comdex and PC Expo, which historically have been showcases for new PC products, are increasingly dominated by announcements about non-PC devices. Indeed, the Internet is leading to profound changes in the world of personal computing. Rather than an end in itself, the PC is seen more and more as just one of a number of Internet access devices. Internet appliances such as the i-opener are less expensive and are easier to set up and use than a PC. Handheld computers such as the Palm VII are portable, popular, and increasingly connected. For business use, network computers, which haven't been as popular as once predicted by companies such as Sun Microsystems and Oracle, are quietly encroaching upon the office. A recent survey by Computerworld magazine found that 35% of businesses are using network computers or other "thin clients," including PCs that run Microsoft Windows but don't have hard, floppy, and CD-ROM drives. Network computers such as the Sun Ray cost less to buy, and more importantly, to maintain, than PCs because programs are accessed and upgraded from a central server computer instead of individual hard disks. Then there are "set-top boxes" that access the Internet through your TV such as Microsoft's WebTV and Web phones such as the Sprint PCS Touchpoint. Finally, with "voice portals" such as Tellme, you can access via the Internet snippets of information such as stock quotes and weather forecasts for free using a plain old telephone. It might seem that, like the mainframe computer before it, the PC is about to be supplanted by newer and simpler technologies. Even Microsoft, which has a vested interest in consumers buying as many PCs as possible, is planning to adapt its software to the Internet. The thinking behind this Net-centric vision is elegant. As spelled out by one of its architects, Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy, the crucial resource isn't the PC but information, which should be as easy to access as electricity. You shouldn't have to think about, let alone wrestle, with over-engineered access devices. There's much to be said for this vision. But it ignores one key reality. No non-PC device on the market or the drawing boards is as versatile as the PC. You can use a PC for the most wide-ranging of tasks, from budgeting to game playing, from letter writing to video editing. It's this versatility that has validated the "personal" in "personal computer." By choosing your components, peripherals, and software and by customizing your programs with interface tweaks and productivity-boosting shortcuts, you can adapt a PC, to a remarkable degree, to the way you think. Sacrificing this versatility for a more stable and less expensive networked or portable machine is like going back to public transportation after buying your first car. Sure, it's more efficient in a planetary sense. But you lose the element of control. The versatility of the PC is also responsible for its popularity, which isn't likely to fall any time soon. The PC industry continues to experience annual double-digit growth, and more than half of homes in the U.S. now have PCs. This doesn't mean that non-PC devices won't catch on. But they will supplement, not supplant, PCs, I predict. eTForecasts, a Buffalo Grove, Ill.-based market research company, agrees. It recently projected that Internet appliances, handheld computers, and other non-PC devices in use worldwide will grow from 21.5 million units today to 596 million in 2005, a huge increase. But it also projected that over the same time period the number of PCs in use worldwide will grow from 521 million units to a staggering 1 billion units. Later on this century you might walk around with computer chips embedded in your body. But in the meantime, you'll likely be sitting in front of a PC. The beige box isn't buried yet.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at http://members.home.net/reidgold.