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It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Filed in: consumerism, culture, design, tech, Wed, Jan 5 2011 21:05 PT

…by which I mean CES, of course.

Granted, half of the things presented this week will never see the light of day, and the other half will be three to six months later than they announced. But still, today alone was just staggering. Motorola gave an Apple-grade presentation (if you can look past its comically bad audio). Olympus finally announced a Micro Four Thirds camera I’m willing to take the plunge on. Even Microsoft may be at risk of becoming relevant again.

I think what can be said about this batch of announcements is that this is the year everything is good enough. What I mean to say is that, of all the devices I’ve seen in the last couple of days, nearly all of them are capable of convincing someone to give up the PC as their primary computer device. These aren’t just rehashed netbooks–relatively few, in fact, even have an Atom CPU–but devices everywhere from 3 inches on up that have enough juice to browse the web, handle email, play games, watch movies, find yourself on a map, and generally do what 90% of the market does with their PCs.

I’ve seen a lot of CES presentations in my time, but this is the first year that I’ve seen the writing on the wall for PCs as we know them. Now, okay, if you’re reading this, you’re one of two kinds of people: the ones who will be using your phone or tablet as your primary computing device by the end of the year, if you’re not already; or the ones who will still be lugging a 5-lb. clamshell device with a keyboard to your neighborhood Starbucks. Either way, in my opinion, you’re an outlier. You may need to type so frequently that a keyboard is always in your plans. Or you may be editing 4k video, or compiling an operating system. And that’s fine. PCs will still exist for those cases. But you’re still going to be affected by the trends in the industry.

What I want you to think about as you contemplate the death of the PC (or, say, Wintel, or the WIMP model, or what have you) is someone you know who’s not at all a geek. Maybe your mom, or the partner who stares glassy-eyed at you when you come home complaining about the latency of your DNS at work. Now, think: what do these people do with their computers all day? They browse the web. And by “the web”, I mean web-based email, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Netflix, their bank accounts, their stocks. Name me one thing 90% of these users need a Core i7 CPU for. Games? Only if they’re hardcore. Editing images or videos? Probably not worth the investment.

In the overall cost-to-benefit calculation, there’s going to be a lot more value given to size and battery life than to raw horsepower. And raw horsepower per dollar is really the only remaining benefit of the PC. They’re complicated, bulky, virus-prone, and get slower over time. I looked at my in-laws’ mid-tower Windows machine like it was a record player: it’s big, loud, sucks down a lot of juice… and most importantly, it was asleep most of the time I was there, since they got my hand-me-down netbook for a present.

Meanwhile, you can walk into any mobile phone store in the US today and pick up a 1GHz computer with a half-decent browser for anywhere from $200 to nothing. Then you can shove it in your pocket. That’s powerful. And what we’re seeing this week shows us that the gap between the desktop and the pocket is not only narrowing, but it’s morphing in all kinds of ways. If Motorola is to be believed, the tablet battle will be joined by the Android Honeycomb-powered Xoom this spring; there will be at least one 960×540 phone in the near future; and Windows 8 is aiming for low-power CPUs as well. Consumer electronics companies aren’t tailoring their offerings for power users: they’re aiming squarely at the non-geek in the house. (Don’t feel threatened. It’s for the best.)

This week, we’re seeing what the non-Apple players in the market are seeing as the future of computing. This looks to be the first time Apple has to look at the competition seriously.

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