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Wed, Aug 08, 2001 - Page 21 News List

Massive changes in the works for the old computer

PROGRESS The technology has lept forward, but the device's appearance remains relatively unchanged. But some say the PC as we know it will soon be history


An undated file photo of an advertisment for the Apple II computer introduced in 1977. Stiff competition over the years reduced Apple's products to a niche market. Today, about 5 percent of the world's PCs are Apple Macs.


In the 20 years since IBM Corp introduced its personal computer, the machines have evolved from a clunky beige box with a bulky monitor to -- a clunky beige box with an even bulkier monitor.

Gains in technology have primarily come in computing power and networking, not in appearance.

Over the next 20 years, that will change.

"The PC as we currently view it is toast," said Rob Enderle, a business analyst with Giga Information Group. "The thing you call your computer will be separated into many components."

The desktop PC will morph into Internet-access devices with shapes and sizes that cater to individual preferences.

They'll be flung about the home or office, carried in a backpack or shirt pocket, worn around the wrist or neck. The machines will keep getting faster, smaller and smarter.

By the 40th anniversary of the PC -- on Aug. 12, 2021 -- computers might be as smart as people.

"Ultimately they'll become so small, you won't need the physical object at all," said Ray Kurzweil, the futurist author and inventor. "It's going to be embedded in our environment."

The PCs upcoming metamorphosis employs equal parts mobility, speed and network synchronization.

Already, office workers are trading desktop PCs for laptops. In turn, laptops are flattening into stylus-operated tablet PCs that can handle different jobs. Fujitsu and Sony already sell tablet PCs, and Microsoft Corp touts forthcoming tablet software.

And, as cell phones and handheld computers grow stronger and smaller, they'll assume many of the tasks associated with the PC.

Soon, office computers might shrink into a brick-sized box that sits on the floor.

Or a computer's guts could sit inside a portable module the size of a pack of cigarettes. The module, with a person's files and software, could slide into any number of docking stations: a handheld personal digital assistant, a laptop, or a computer screen embedded in an airline seat or coffee shop table.

Further down, components will be small enough to fit into jewelry or stitched into clothing. Perhaps the display will be written on our retinas. Already, cell phones in Japan are tiny enough to wear on a necklace.

"We won't continue to carry around a laptop, phone, Walkman, MP3 player or Palm Pilot," said Michel Mayer, IBM's manager of pervasive computing.

Perhaps more importantly, computing networks will enhance capabilities of other machines: cars, gas pumps, dishwashers, doorknobs or maps. Computing will become a utility -- like electricity or running water -- that gets noticed only when it fails.

"These machines will have infiltrated into just about every aspect of our existence," said Craig Mundie, a Microsoft strategist. "We'll be wholly dependent on them, just like we are now with plumbing and electricity."

For instance, a dishwasher might connect with the electric and water utilities to calculate an operating time when rates are cheapest. LG Electronics already sells a refrigerator with a touch-screen PC. Soon, smart refrigerators will alert us to spoiled milk.

A smart door latch might even open the door and let your dog in -- but not the neighbor's. Such a mechanism "might even accept FedEx deliveries for you," said Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab.

As new modes of input replace the keyboard, computers as we know them may all but disappear.

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