Will Your Next Computer Be Your Last?

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Just about twenty years ago I bought my first personal computer. It was thin, white and about the size of a spiral notebook. It weighed under a pound. Of course, it required a black and white TV for a monitor, an audio cassette deck for data storage and had tiny, flat membrane keys like a microwave. It sported four kilobytes of memory. Four thousand bytes, and they were all mine. I stuffed my Sinclair ZX80's little silicon brain full of BASIC and machine language programs. I taught it to race bright, blocky horses across the TV screen and play bad games of tic-tac-toe. I spent hour after hour tapping out code and watching it come to life. If I could have worn its keys down any flatter I would have.

I was thinking about my first computer recently when I watched, on my Powerbook, a television commercial for the new Apple iBook. It features a character called Mr. Shaeffer. He's a slack-jawed guy about the same age as me when I owned my Sinclair. Shaeffer tells an airline-ticket clerk he specifically wants the middle seat. We learn why when, in the dim light of the plane, he lowers his seat tray, then those on either side of him and unpacks a knapsack full of digital gadgets. Front and centre is a thin, white computer about the size of a spiral notebook - the iBook. Plugged into it are a digital camera, a camcorder and a personal digital assistant. To the astonishment of his sleepy row-mates, our Mr. Shaeffer is editing a digital movie while listening to the Baha Men on his built-in CD player. His little white computer has 128 megabytes of memory. That's 32,000 times the memory of my little white computer. It's also 200 times faster. My Sinclair couldn't even store the data needed to draw a single colour icon on the iBook's screen. And play music? My ZX80 couldn't even play solitaire.

But maybe, just maybe, the iBook is Shaeffer's first computer too. And, if he's like most consumers these days, it might be his last for a long time to come.

That Apple advertisement - and other recent computer ads - highlights a remarkable irony. Shaeffer and the rest of the general public who buy laptops like the iBook really can use them to edit digital video, rip MP3s and burn CDs, store digital pictures and, oh yes, write essays and send e-mail. They can do all that with a computer that costs under $3,000 and weighs about two kilograms. And so, once you buy a computer like that, you're sort of finished, aren't you? Once you can edit a movie in your lap while listening to your favourite band, really, what else is there left to do?

Consider this. I'm writing this story on a Powerbook I bought over a year ago. It's yesterday's news. But I'm listening to an MP3 of Nigel Kennedy playing Beethoven, looking at the "Mr. Shaeffer" video up in a corner of my monitor and typing this when I'm not reflexively responding to the cheery ping of incoming e-mail. I'm hooked into the Internet via cable modem and can dump my vital data to my Visor that's waiting in the cradle near my right hand. So, for all the geek lust Shaeffer's glowing little iBook stirs, I can't really say I need one. To be honest, I don't even want one. I'm sort of done.

This is a remarkable admission. For two decades I've outgrown or just plain envied myself through a string of home computers since the Sinclair ZX80. I'd always wanted more memory, a faster processor, better sound or more hard drive space. And the personal computer industry never failed to deliver.

Each year, computers processed faster and their operating systems became more bloated, vying to drag them to a screeching halt. Each year the resolution of monitors increased and memory chips got almost as cheap as chocolate ones. And, year after year, new desktop applications teased and waved from the horizon: publishing, audio, animation, video, DVD authoring.

That software was vital to keep the home computer juggernaut rolling. Software has always driven hardware and hardware sales. Where would the Internet have been without a little software hack called e-mail? Still at university, probably. Or the IBM PC without the knockout spreadsheet application of 1983, Lotus 1-2-3? And, of course, the Macintosh without desktop publishing would have withered on the branch.

"640K is enough memory for anyone," Bill Gates famously said in 1982. That was, of course, three years before he introduced Windows 1.0 and made himself look foolish and made everyone else look for faster computers with enough memory to house the lumbering mammoth of an operating system.

Windows was a graphical user interface, or GUI. Microsoft got a lot of the ideas for Windows from the 1984 Macintosh interface which, in turn, cadged some moves from the interface for a groundbreaking computer called the Alto developed at the Xerox PARC labs in the early 1970s. The Alto wasn't really up to the task of running its graphically intense operating system. Most IBM PCs back in 1985 barely ran Windows 1.0 and the first Macs were sluggish, memory-starved little boxes.

It's different now. All consumer computers can run GUIs just fine. No one but a hardcore coder or Unix guru needs to use a command-line interface anymore. And although Apple is pushing its Unix-based OS X and Microsoft is set to launch Windows XP, most of us don't need either. Mr. Shaeffer could do everything he does in his airplane seat without a new operating system, and so can you.

Maybe that's one reason why the PC industry is slowing down. Two weeks ago, The Globe and Mail reported that the growth rate for PC sales dropped 2 per cent in the second quarter of this year. That's the first time in the twenty-year-history of personal computing that quarterly sales have declined. It's expected that the trend may continue to the end of the year. The U.S. home-computer giant Gateway recently predicted that it won't be showing a profit in the last two quarters of this year. Even Microsoft is predicting sluggish PC sales.

And late last month, Compaq announced it's stepping out of the computer sales business and moving to a model where it will provide hardware and software solutions to companies. This is just what IBM did years earlier when Compaq and Dell kicked its Big Blue butt around the block in computer sales. Compaq's move leaves the computer-as-commodity market open to Dell, which expects the computer sales to pick up again later this year. I'm not so optimistic. Maybe what consumers are saying is, "Enough's enough."

Truth be told, most people using home computers today could do what they do using a pre-Windows 1.0 IBM PC. You can get a lot of word processing and e-mail done on a box that still runs DOS, the pre-Windows operating system that brought Bill Gates his fame and fortune. Or, for under $100 you can buy a used Mac SE and a Stylewriter 1200 printer and have a still-serviceable word processor. You can even find a web browser created for the Commodore 64, which was a hot home machine the same year Tron was a cool movie (1982).

All of which suggests that, for many people, today's high-powered computers are the SUVs of technology. No one really needs a car with a rhino bumper to drive to the Price Club, and nobody needs a 500 Mhz multimedia-capable laptop to send e-mail to the grandkids at university.

That's more than just a flip remark. The two fast growing demographic sectors for online use in Canada are folks over sixty-five and folks who didn't graduate from high school. Both groups, for different reasons, I suspect, are unlikely to be the early adopters of leading edge Web technologies. I occasionally act as a computer coach for a seventy-year-old retired Stelco crane operator. Rigo doesn't want to learn new Web technologies. He just wants his e-mail and his beloved Real Player to work the way they're supposed to, and they often don't. For many users, like Rigo, using a computer isn't intuitive. The last thing he needs is another piece of half-broken software to deal with.

And, I'm not convinced that the only way to make computers more intuitive is to make them faster and give them bigger hard drives and new operating systems. Both the elegant Palm and populist Linux operating systems have proved that.

But even if you wanted to upgrade out of sheer envy, computer companies' ad agencies are thwarting you.

Recent Apple advertising touted its G4 desktop systems as "supercomputers." That makes it pretty hard for your average e-mail fan with a G4 to upgrade. The rebuttal is just too easy: "For heaven's sake, Ernie, you're just sending the girls news about the flower garden and you already own a computer that can design an intercontinental ballistic missile strategy. What else do you need?" Exactly.

Now, you might argue that this whole notion is destroyed with a single word: games. Not so. Last Christmas, Sony launched the Play Station 2. Its next game box the GSCube, due in 2004 will be sixteen times more powerful. This fall, Nintendo will launch the Game Cube, its follow-up to the Nintendo 64. And, of course, Microsoft will be introducing its game machine, the Xbox just in time for this Christmas.

All of these machines are built from the ground up for home entertainment. With the Xbox, for example, Microsoft plans to capture the leisure time of all the office workers it already holds in thrall. Windows box nine-to-five, Xbox, five-to-nine. That's the strategy from Redmond. So, if consumers are going to be going for better games, they'll be buying a cube or a box or a station, not a laptop or a desktop. Besides, if you're busy editing video on your home computer wouldn't you rather have your teenagers distracted by playing a version of Tomb Raider so realistic they can read the rest of William Blake's "Auguries of Innocence" over Angelina Jolie's shoulder?

Are these new game boxes computers? Of course they are. The Xbox sports a 733 Mhz processor and, more importantly, a parallel processing graphics chip that can execute one trillion operations per second. The other game boxes also pack dedicated graphic chips that would make most desktop computers phosphorous green with envy. But they're about fun, not work, and will wind up in the family room, not the home office. Plus, they'll all be priced far under $1,000 which will make them a very attractive alternative to upgrading your desktop.

But, surely, as bandwidth improves, we'll all want faster, better home computers. Well, I'm not so sure bandwidth into most Canadians homes is going to improve all that much in the next five years. Right now, only about a quarter of Canadians on the Web use high speeds. The acceptance of high-speed access will increase dramatically in the next few years, but I'm not convinced that the overall speed of access will get much faster. In the next few years cable and telephone companies will be busy chasing the low speed multitude and building the infrastructure to support the increased demand. The last thing they'll want to do is to give all those millions of new customers even more bandwidth. Just ask Rogers@Home, which is currently dealing with the PR fallout from a $75-million class-action suit by customers complaining about spotty service.

American Online (AOL) is an object lesson in this. In the mid-1990s AOL had access to AOL Radio technology that would have allowed its subscribers to stream audio into their computers. They didn't deploy it for fear that the sound of millions of digital audio listeners would be the noise a network makes when it grinds to a halt.

In Canada, consider Excite@Home. In 1999, I was an emerging-media consultant for the company. Back then, the high-bandwidth cable network could have streamed live concerts to its subscribers. It was against company policy to do so. Again, that dry grinding sound of a choked network filled the executives' worst nightmares.

And really, the overall Internet infrastructure couldn't handle all of us swapping huge video files or streaming broadcast quality video, two reasons we might possibly want faster, bigger desktop computers. It's scalable, and one day we might have fibre optic Internet feeds coming into our homes, but in Canada even optimistic projections see only about 10 per cent of us getting that kind of service in the next three years, and we'll pay big for it.

What about wireless broadband? That is, Internet access via handheld devices like cell phones and personal digital assistants. Here the situation is worse. The industry terminology for broadband wireless access is 3G, as in third generation. The dream of 3G wireless is handheld videoconferencing from an airport lounge or the ability to watch video clips on your bike. So, with 3G wireless access to digital multimedia, couldn't our desktops just become our palmtops? Wouldn't 3G liberate us? Well, yes except for some serious technical and economic hurdles.

Right now, the hotbed of 3G is Europe, where 63 per cent of citizens have mobile phones. However, even there, the business models that would make 3G a success are as rare as Nortel stock millionaires. Companies are hard pressed to come up with content or e-commerce ideas that subscribers would pay enough for to make the delivery of multimedia material viable. Plus, it appears that the actual maximum speed of 3G isn't fast enough to allow decent wireless video anyway. Also, right now, 3G phones burn through batteries like a baby goes through diapers. They also run hot enough to bake a potato.

And, higher-bandwidth phones aren't moving so fast. In fact, according to Industry Standard magazine, the electronics giant Seimens is projecting that, by 2005, only about 15 per cent of European subscribers will have 3G phones in hand. Just last month, the U.S.-based wireless Internet provider Metricom filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The company offered the high-speed Richocet wireless data network to a handful of American cities. The company cited the high cost of the network infrastructure and the low number of subscribers. So, don't hold your breath here in Canada.

Bottom line? After two decades of chasing the next machine, we can all relax for awhile, ignore the hype and ads and take up a new, cheaper hobby, like sailing. Well, with maybe one exception in my case. I just checked on eBay. There's a Sinclair ZX80 for sale. The top bid's $171 and there's only three days left on the auction. Maybe I do need another computer after all, for old time's sake.

Wayne MacPhail is a Hamilton-based freelance writer. He was the founder anddirector of Southam InfoLab and, most recently, the director of content forSympatico-Lycos. An earlier version of this story ran in the July 14 edition of The Hamilton Spectator. "everyone's a critic" is a rabble news feature providing commentary by various writers on, well, anything.

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