Don't Let the PC Become a Dinosaur

[qi:043] Everything today is connected. And that may be bad news for that PC sitting on your desk or the high-powered laptop that you tote around on business trips. In an increasingly connected world, where data is just a server request away, the PC needs an overhaul to stay relevant, so that it isn’t merely a hub for all of your digital devices, but it’s also a contributor to the web and an intelligent orchestrator of the home network.

Last week, I read a story about broadband deployments in Africa that quoted an Ericsson executive saying that broadband should be a basic right, available to everyone to access at any time. Of course, any equipment vendor would say that, but it also happens to be true. Ericsson cites research by ConsumerLab, involving 5,000 Internet users in five countries, of which 82 percent reported using the Internet several times a day. Half of the respondents said having high-speed Internet everywhere was important, while 48 percent agreed a computer without Internet had no value.

What jumped out at me was that almost half of the surveyed population believed that a disconnected computer had no value. That right there drives home how quickly the hardware race that PC makers had engaged in during the ’80s and early ’90s has turned into the broadband race, where value is built on a web platform, not the device. The next-generation companies won’t be those that master the hardware but those that dominate the web, as Google, Facebook and even companies like Spotify or Hunch are trying to do.

And now, as we use web-based services to extend the capabilities of our smartphones and netbooks, I wonder how long we will keep our PC-centric worldview? How long before all devices need a connection? The market has pretty much determined that an unconnected e-reader is a waste of silicon and plastic. I’d argue that an unconnected music player or personal navigation device will soon become anachronisms.

But once devices are always connected, I question the value of a PC for many people. Some people already use their iPhones as their primary Internet connection, and I personally use my iPod touch for most things that I once used my laptop for. (Blogging is the exception.) Right now, the value of the PC for some people is that it allows them to connect to their gadgets. Syncing your iPhone or iPod touch to the PC is an irritatingly familiar task for many, as is hooking your PC to a home stereo system to play your music. The same goes for some mobile phones. But soon there will be a cloud for that. And because we’ll have ubiquitous wireless, we’ll be able to access the cloud whenever we want.

And once we have an iTunes cloud, a personal photos cloud, a contacts/email cloud, etc., then the PC may revert to its role, not as the orchestrator of our digital lives, but as a productivity tool for people who need to create content, play with spreadsheets and crunch numbers. So to stay relevant, the PC has to evolve, not just from a productivity tool, but to a powerhouse of wired connectivity and computing horsepower. We need operating systems that understand how interactive the PC must become and that can integrate things like P2P for delivering large content to the web or around the home.

With a quality broadband network, resilient and dependable clouds, our gadgets and our data can be free to roam from place to place, and from device to device, without those painful PC pit stops. Then instead of an anchor tethering our devices to the home, it can be the platform on which we create and send out our digital selves into the ether.