PCs as Appliances, a perspective

In the past year, it has been discussed by the upper echelon of the PC Clone industry to produce computers that are more like appliances instead of computers. Some of these people are none other than Bill Gates himself. One of Mr. Gates initiatives is to make a computer that has no internal expansion capabilities, but it will have ports that will allow the owner to add external devices, such as scanners, modems, and printers.

If this sounds familiar it is because that it has been tried before. Some of those machines are called Apple IIc, Macintosh, C64, Timex Sinclair, PC Junior, and the Amiga. All of these computers, save one, have disappeared from the computer market. The reason, the owner could not 'Upgrade' their system to keep up with the changes in the market. A very good example of this is the ever changing world of video cards out there. Just 6 years ago, VGA became the standard display adapter, stealing the market from EGA. Those displays were nice, offering resolutions at up to 640x480 and 256 colors. Soon, with the advent of windows, there was the Windows Accelerated VGA card. This change was just one year after VGA was the defacto standard. Three years ago, you could not find a standard VGA card except at flea markets. Today, motion video accelerated cards are considered a standard and the 3D video card the up and coming video standard.

With just those changes, a PC owner was able to rip out his old video, buy the new one, and install that card into his system without throwing the whole system into the garbage and starting over. Granted, computer prices are dropping like a rock from ten thousand feet, but that does not mean that the average user can afford to throw away a two thousand dollar machine just to buy a new two thousand five hundred dollar machine. As with most things, the upgrade costs less than the whole unit purchase.

Another example of this, and probably the best, is memory upgrades. When a system is purchased, the owner buys into a certain level of memory. For some it is an economic decision, and for others its a use requirement. Either way, each person is required to have a base amount of memory in their machine to run the programs they have decided to use on that machine. In the case of a home user, that amount, for today, would be sixteen megabytes of ram. Just two years ago, that number would have been four megabytes of ram. With ram prices now sitting in the subbasement of Macy's bargain basement parts prices, the average user can now upgrade his once nice machine, and now underpowered one, to at least the minimum required by the operating systems offered today! I guess my situation is the example I am using. I bought my Pentium 60 for just under fifteen hundred dollars. What that gave me was eight meg of ram, a five hundred forty meg Hard Drive and a one meg video card. Now, a year ago that was considered OK, not great, but OK. Today, that would be anemic at best! What I have now due to upgrades is a Pentium 133, forty eight meg of ram, a two gig Hard Drive and a two meg motion video accelerated video card. To buy a system at this level, which is considered to be about average in the industry, would set me back about two thousand dollars. Now, I didn't buy this all at once, and I sure as heck couldn't do that all at once, but due to upgrades, I was able to get to that point.

Now, lets look at what the future will bring. In the future, if we discount the computer being built as an appliance, we will have a choice of a Pentium pro based system, with a permanent two hundred fifty six kb of cache or five hundred and twelve kb, between thirty two and sixty four meg of ram, between four and eight gigs of hard drive space, at a speed of between two hundred to three hundred MHz. OK, I don't have a crystal ball, and I cant tell you how many changes will happen. At this time, in just six months there will be at least two processor speed changes, the addition of another type of Pentium and Pentium pro processor, namely the MMX. The additions to this list will be the need to increase your memory. Why? Well, Microsoft is now getting ready to push everyone into the Windows NT operating system.

Windows NT requires a lot of memory to be run right, and if you remember the hype from when a year ago Window 95 showed up on the scene, the memory upgrade market will go nuts. This leads to another point. If the computers sold had no way of upgrading the memory, video, or hard disk storage capacities, then everyone would have to buy new computers, and these computers would now be sold with Windows NT on them, thus expanding Microsoft's hold. Now, don't think that Microsoft is alone in this, there are other companies involved. All you have to do to know which ones are involved in this is to look for the supposed Net Computer, or NC for short. Any company working to produce such a critter is not one looking out for the user and owner of systems, but their bottom line.

About five months ago, I read an article about how the PC market was going to turn into the next appliance market. This thought was spurred by the fact that Packard Bell had managed to destroy the PC Clone market from a true 'buy a base and upgrade it as time warrants' to a 'buy it now, through it out later and buy another'. I don't argue with the need for a PC in every home, but I do think that if you cut off your nose to spite your face, you will get laughed at. Just remember all of those other companies that promised to bring a simple, easy to setup computer, that are now just so much plastic sitting in a landfill. I guess the best way to look at it is to look at notebook level computers and think about trying to upgrade them with new video, new sound, new HD, and new memory levels. The answer to that was the laughable PCMCIA cards and sockets seen on them.

If this trend were to come true, then every single computer user and owner will get stuck with a system that neither does exactly what they want, nor will they be able to make it later do what they want. This is as much a warning to everyone out there that wants to buy a computer as it is a warning to the people who are thinking in this manner. Making a computer that has no upgrade option is like buying a Yugo or a one button mouse, they have great prices at first, but leave you in the lurch when you find you need to improve it for one reason or another.

--- Andy Hardison
--- Stilgar@eden.com