The PC in the new millennium

It’s not your imagination: things really are changing faster than ever with personal computers.

By 2001 you may not recognize PCs at all. Many will fit into the palm of your hand; nearly all will offer connections to the Internet and to each other. But the road ahead is also full of speed bumps, potholes and blind curves.

By 2000, Intel’s mainstream desktop CPUs will tick along at a torrid 700MHz. But that’s not the only change you’ll find inside the box. The coming three years will see numerous new processor families, a new memory standard and perhaps an end to the motherboard as we know it. The enhancements will allow new PCs to handle the emerging tasks of the day — intense 3D graphics, full-motion MPEG-2 video and applications like voice recognition.

Your next PC will be speedier, more powerful and better connected. Despite these improvements, you can expect these PCs to be smaller and less expensive than the one you now own.

The most obvious changes will be cosmetic. The iMac proves that PCs don’t need to be boring and beige — but then again, not every Dell or Compaq box will be a translucent art piece either. Changes inside the case will give many systems a more svelte figure, says Carl Everett, senior vice-president of the personal systems group at Dell Computer in Round Rock, Tex.

Everett says that by 2000, the archaic ISA expansion bus will be a not-so-fond memory. Freed of bulky ISA slots, vendors will be able to choose from smaller motherboards and experiment with stylish, space-saving PC designs.

The PC’s slimfast diet will really kick in with the next generation of displays, according to Everett. Today’s bulky 17- and 19-inch CRTs can weigh 50 pounds and consume more than a square foot of desk space. LCD screens offer nearly all the display area of today’s large CRTs, yet weigh one-fifth as much, take up a third of the space, and use half the electricity. They also display sharper graphics and induce less eyestrain than their CRT counterparts.

Your next PC will drop ports as well as pounds — and the ports that remain will run faster and act smarter than the ones they replace. Expect all new computers to ship with USB-compliant mice, keyboards and other peripherals. Native support in Windows 2000 (formerly NT 5.0) will also bring USB’s benefits to many corporate and high-end PC users.

Critical advances in computer recognition of speech, facial characteristics and gestures will add new dimensions to PC interfaces.

“We are trying to bring the keyboard, the pen, the camera, and speech all together,” says Robert Morris, director of personal systems and advanced systems technology for IBM Research in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. “There will be interfaces that observe you and track your eye position.”

Users with disabilities will also benefit from interfaces that can recognize gestures. Smart software will allow PCs to separate normal human movement from command-specific gestures, Morris said.

Similarly, input devices will become more intelligent and more interactive. “We’re definitely exploring what a mouse can do,” states Dan Coyne, group marketing manager for Microsoft’s Hardware Group. Coyne describes a mouse in development that lets users feel icons and links as the device is dragged over them.

Lee Green, director of corporate identity and design at IBM, envisions bigger changes. “At some point in the future, one version of a mobile device will be a wearable one.” According to Green, everyone from surgeons to archaeologists will be able to access critical information using such a PC. A tiny monitor mounted over one eye could display text and schematics, while navigation could be handled through voice recognition. Fairfax, Va.-based Xybernaut is already marketing a wearable PC featuring a 233MHz processor, 128MB of RAM, and a 4.3GB hard drive. You attach the 28-ounce processor unit to your belt; an optional keyboard can be strapped to your arm. The price? A fashionable US$5,700.

Desmond is a consultant and author of the Peter Norton Guide to Upgrading and Repairing PCs.