Let’s start simple: PC Hardware in 2020

The venerable PC will still be with us in 2020 I would think. It will have lost importance, just like it lost importance in the last decade with the emergence of iPhones and Wiis and TiVos. But it will still be there in its boxy under-the-table incarnation, and its in-the-briefcase and on-the-lap incarnation. People will still want to type memos and spreadsheets on their own choice of hardware, edit movies and use vi to mess around with cryptic configuration files.

I think most of the cables that connect the PC to other devices will have gone. Right now, my Mac laptop is connected to two 7-port USB hubs, almost all full, some firewire drives, an external monitor, Gigabit Ethernet, power, and speakers. That wiring insanity will probably have been replaced by something universal wireless. Something that detects other devices in the proximity (as Apple’s Bonjour is beginning to do) and connects them appropriately, including displays. Security will be an interesting subject (and I will have things to say amount that separately).

All PCs will have wireless connectivity built-in. Likely different protocols for different purposes, e.g. connecting a high-resolution display will use a different protocol than wide-area networking. (I will have things to say on the evolution of wireless data networks separately. For right now, we can assume that the PC will be “always connected”, regardless where it is, at speeds that allow at least video transmission; in some places much faster).

Last night I compared Dell‘s current home page with its home page 10 years ago (thanks to archive.org). The most striking difference? At the end of 2009, Dell’s PC category lead with systems in the $300-$500 range, while ten years ago, the most prominent offer cost $1800.

I don’t think PC prices will fall much below what they are now. Power supplies cost what they cost, and boxes and fans do and so forth. None of them is subject to Moore’s law. There will be categories of very powerful computing equipment at lower prices but it won’t be the PC. If Apple is any guide, PC prices might even increase again although I consider that unlikely.

Computing power of the average PC will be difficult to fathom from our current experience, just like today’s 2-4 GHz and 2-4GB of RAM for a PC were hard to fathom 10 years ago. On current trends, in 2020 it should be something like:

  • 256GB to 512GB RAM
  • several hundred billion instructions per second, most likely delivered through a massively multi-core architecture. Say, several dozen cores all running not much faster than today’s processors. We’ll still be at a 64bit architecture
  • video hardware that is able to create highly realistic, fully-immersive 3D environments. It will also be used as a matter of course for computation, but it’s unclear to me whether there are many uses in a PC form factor.
  • there won’t be any CD, DVD or other drive slots. Except perhaps for memory sticks; I expect them to survive, even if they change form factor a bit (e.g. a card).

The real question is: what will we do with all this computing power in a PC form factor with local display and keyboard? In particular given that really powerful computing farms will be available at an instant’s notice, and connectivity is granted at a bandwidth that is at least as high as a human’s ability to process it? (I will have things to say on on-demand computing capacity.)

Looking back 10 years again is instructive. For the average user, what exactly has the most recent 100-fold increase of computing power bought us? The amusing and disheartening answer is: mostly just cuteness. The Windows Aero interface. The Mac ripple and genie effects. The word processors and spreadsheets are still the same. Presentations have nicer font rendering. Well. Except for two: 1. we can now do video editing on our PCs without going insane. And 2. computer games have become much more interactive and realistic. Those two about the highest-bandwidth applications that I can think of that regular PC users are ever going to use, using the traditional PC form factor. There is no similar application on the horizon that I can think of for the next 10 years.

In 2020, I expect that most of the coming computing power on PCs will have gone into cuteness and nothing else. OSX Finder and Windows Explorer will have gone 3-D. I will feel home in my file system almost like I am in my neighborhood street (or so they will hope). Some real virtual reality stuff will have made it into the OS, so I can interact with the various pieces on my PC in a spatial sense. (cobwebs and junk on old files in dark attic corners, anybody?) There is a chance the PC will “look at me” with several built-in cameras in stereo mode, and we’ll use that as an additional way of providing input without intentionally having to do anything like pushing a button. (I will have to say additional things about computing devices observing what you are up to.)

[Writer's comment: Writing this down is definitely useful. Hah, there is a point to this blog! I realize that I am having a hard time justifying the value of a PC with the traditional form factor in 2020. There will be PCs in 2020, but I sure wouldn't want to be a PC manufacturer churning out boxes as they have done for 20 years or more. The value is simply not there any more for unit volumes like they are used to: prices fell from $1800 to $400 already in the past decade, arguably because the increased cuteness facilitated by Moore's law was not good enough to keep up the price point. One shudders thinking about the coming decade. The good news: perhaps much better and more useful form factors are becoming possible. Stay tuned for a future post.]

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