Happy Birthday PC - But What About Network Computing?

It’s the 25th birthday of the PC (Personal Computer) today. It was announced on the 12th August 1981 (when I was one), and its impact since is well-understood (Wikipedia has more detail on its history). As a recent Economist article makes clear, it was an unusual product for IBM, and defined part of the company’s image for a long time (the PC business is now owned by Lenovo).

The death of the PC, often seen as the thickest of thick clients, has been predicted before on several occasions. One of the more prominent was by Sun and others in the late 80s and early 90s, when they claimed that Networking computing (based on thin clients and powerful servers) was going to make the PC redundant. They were perhaps ahead of their time, probably because the network just wasn’t up to the job yet, but there’s a possibility that they may yet be right.

It looks like Web 2.0 might have a lot to do with this. Google and others are making it feasible to do ‘office work’ (as in the type of work one might do with Microsoft Office) online. Web-based email has been widely available for some time, and lots of people use it. Blogs such as this are created online. A decreasing amount of computing work is done offline.

Another related trend is the use of other bits of hardware apart from the PC on one’s desk to access ‘the network’. Mobile phones are possibly the most obvious, but what are also significant are the number of PC terminals in hotels, internet cafes, etc. used by people away from home (or, in poorer areas of the world, who don’t own a PC at all). What this implies is that the software on the PC, apart from the web browser, is becoming less significant, and the content on the network is what’s important.

More compact and streamlined PCs such as the Apple iMac are gaining prevalence as well, meaning that even the PCs themselves aren’t as huge, power-hungry, and ugly as they once were.

How quickly this change will continue remains to be seen. Maybe we will end up in a world where we don’t care which network-connected device we use, any more than we care which power socket we use. I suspect things won’t go quite this far. But it will be interesting to see what other useful tools are developed as more data and applications are network-driven, rather than PC-driven.