I just read an interesting article about the dispute between Microsoft and Apple about types of PC . Steve Jobs predicted a switch from desktop PCs to portable devices, while Steve Ballmer of Microsoft claimed that the iPad is just a new PC.
Defining a PC
I think that the defining characteristic of the IBM Compatible PC was it’s open architecture. Right from the start the PC could have it’s hardware expanded by adding new circuit boards into slots on the motherboard (similar to other PC systems of that era such as the Apple 2 and the S-100 bus). The deal with IBM included Intel sharing all it’s CPU designs with other manufacturers such as NEC and AMD from the 8086 until the mid-90’s. AMD specialised in chips that were close copies of Intel chips at low prices and higher clock rates while NEC added new instructions. Compaq started the PC clone market as well as the laptop market, and system software for the IBM compatible PCs was primarily available from IBM and Microsoft in the early days, along with less popular variants such as CP/M86, Novell Netware and others. In the late 80’s there was OS/2 as an alternate OS and Windows as one of several optional GUI environments to run on top of MS-DOS or PC-DOS. In the mid 90’s PCs were used for running protected mode OSs such as Linux and Windows/NT.
Now if we look at a system such as a Netbook then it clearly misses some of the defining characteristics of the desktop PC. I can’t upgrade a Netbook in any meaningful way – changing a storage device or adding more RAM does not compare to adding an ISA/MCA/EISA/VL-Bus/PCI/PCIe expansion card. With my EeePC 701 I don’t even have an option of replacing the storage as it is soldered to the motherboard! A laptop allows me to add a PCMCIA or PC-Card device to expand it, but with a maximum of two cards and a high price this isn’t a great option.
What is Best for Home Users?
For a while now my parents have been using 3G net access for their home Internet use . So it seems that a laptop provides greater benefits for their use now than it previously did when they used Cable and ADSL net access. My parents have been considering getting a new monitor (1920*1080 resolution monitors are getting insanely cheap nowadays) and driving such a monitor effectively might require a more capable PC. I recently bought myself a nice refurbished Thinkpad for $796 , it seems likely that I could find a refurbished Thinkpad at auction which is a little older and slower for a lower price, even buying an old T41p would be a reasonable option. This would give my parents not only the option of using the Internet when on holidays, but also in a different part of their house when they are at home.
The Apple iPad would probably be quite a reasonable Internet platform for my parents if it wasn’t for the fact that it uses DRM. While it’s not a great platform for writing, my parents probably don’t do enough that it would be a huge problem for them. So I might look for a less restrictive tablet platform for my parents. At the moment the best resolution for a tablet seems to be 1024*768, but I expect that some tablets (maybe with a hybrid tablet/laptop design like the Always Innovating Smartbook ) with a higher resolution will be released soon. I hope that the iPad and other closed devices don’t get any serious market share, but it seems likely that OSs such as Android which are only slightly more open will have a significant market share.
Ultra-Mobile Design vs PCs Design
One significant problem with ultra-mobile devices is that they make significant engineering trade-offs to get the small size. For a desktop system there are lots of ways of doing things inefficiently, running the AMD64 or i386 architecture which is wasteful of energy and having lots of unused space inside the box in case you decide to upgrade it. But for a laptop there are few opportunities for being inefficient, and for a tablet or smart phone everything has to be optimised. When the optimisation of a device starts by choosing a CPU that’s unlike most other systems (note that there is a significant range of ARM CPUs that are not fully compatible with each other) it makes it very difficult to produce free software to run it. I can salvage a desktop PC from a rubbish bin and run Linux on it (and I’ve done that many times), but I wouldn’t even bother trying to run Linux on an old mobile phone.
It seems that in the near future my parents (and many other people with similar needs) will be best suited by having a limited device such as a tablet that stores all data on the Internet and not having anything that greatly resembles a PC. In many ways it would be easier for me to support my parents by storing their data in the cloud and then automatically backing it up to removable SATA disks than with my current situation of supporting a fully capable PC and backing it up to a USB device whenever I visit them.
I’m also considering what to do for some relatives who are about to go on a holiday in Europe, they want to be able to send email etc. It might not be possible just yet, but it seems like an ideal way of doing this would be to provide them with something like an iPad that they can use with a local 3G SIM for the country that they stay in and they could then upload all their best photos to some server that I can backup and send email to everyone they know. An iPad isn’t good for this now as you don’t want to go on holidays in another country while carrying something that is really desirable to thieves.
Ultra Mobile Devices are Killing PCs
It seems to me that Google Android and the Apple iPad/iPhone OS are taking over significant parts of the PC market. The people who are doing traditional PC things are increasingly using Laptops and Netbooks, and the number of people who get the freedom that a PC user did in the 80’s and 90’s is decreasing rapidly.
I predict that by 2012 the majority of Linux systems will be running Google Android on hardware that doesn’t easily allow upgrading to more open software. At the moment probably the majority of Linux systems are wireless routers and other embedded devices that people don’t generally think about. But when iPad type devices running a locked-down Linux installation start replacing Ubuntu and Fedora desktop systems people will take notice.
I don’t think that the death of the PC platform as we know it will kill Linux, but it certainly won’t do us any good. If there were smarter people at Microsoft then they would be trying to work with the Linux community on developing innovative new ways of using desktop PCs. Of all the attempts that Microsoft has made to leave the PC platform the only success has been the X-Box which is apparently doing well.
Tablet devices such as the iPad could work really well in a corporate environment (where MS makes most of it’s money). On many occasions I’ve been in a meeting and we had to adjourn due to someone needing to go to their desk to look something up. If everyone had an iPad type device at their desk that used a wired network when it was available and encrypted wireless otherwise then for a meeting everyone could take their tablet without it’s keyboard and be able to consult all the usual sources of data without any interruption.
Could a high-resolution version of the iPad kill MS-Windows in the corporate environment?
-  http://www.theage.com.au/digital-life/tablets/the-ipad-is-just-a-pc-ballmer-to-jobs-20100604-xioj.html
-  http://etbe.coker.com.au/2010/02/03/3g-broadband-for-home-use/
-  http://etbe.coker.com.au/2010/02/15/new-thinkpad-lenovo-web-site-sucks/
-  http://etbe.coker.com.au/2010/01/11/always-innovating/