PC 3.0: Visions from the Phoenix Technology Annual Conference

  • Analyst Opinion - I am at an annual conference Phoenix Technology  puts on to discuss the future of the PC called Strategy 2009. This conference is relatively unique in the segment, because the general topics that are covered are less about products that exist and largely focused on what will exist about two to three years out. One of the wake up presentations was from one of HP’s CTOs, who showcased that the most powerful country in the world in 1900 was Great Britain and the most powerful country in the world is now becoming China, which will have the largest English speaking population shortly, and is already graduating students from colleges at 3x the speed of the U.S. (and, on this metric, India is a close second). Join me for some visions for the future PC landscape.  

    This was all part of a foundation piece that indicated change was coming at an ever increasing pace and that, by the time 2049 comes around and if current trends will continue, a laptop computer will have more computing power than the combined brains of the human race. Hopefully it won’t be part of Skynet. Let’s chat about some of the stuff that is exciting the folks here.   

    Open Source Hardware

    Much like we saw a massive jump to Open Source software, there is now a ramping initiative to Open Source Hardware.   This is actually more similar to the kind of effort that first created the PC than in anything specifically out of the software side. The cost associated with designing and building a complex computer is creating a substantial drag on innovation and companies who are building new components have started to create open reference designs which can be broadly adopted without cost in order to move the platforms forward and create markets for these new and currently homeless parts.
    The promise is that we will see more innovative products more quickly; the problem is it isn’t the design that is the most expensive part of the problem. A lot of it is the cost of creating the prototypes, building out the lines and getting some retailer to sell the result.   But the belief is it will lead to more common designs which can more easily shift between technologies and advance more quickly.  We’ll see.  

    PC Application Store

    This concept actually flushed out more quickly on smart phones than on PCs. The reason: The existing sales channel for phone applications is largely through the carriers anyway and not general retail.   What was interesting is this that isn’t yet being thought of as an Application Store, but that was what was discussed. The products being initially pushed through it are, interestingly enough, largely from Phoenix and represent a set of offerings that generally had to be designed into a PC right now like instant on and PC LoJack. Phoenix calls them HyperSpace and FailSafe, but there will be many more applications that are enabled by a PC OEM to allow a PC owner to upgrade a PC much like Application Store users do every day with their iPhone, iPod Touch, and G1.  Wrapped into an annual service charge, the result is a growing number of utilities, each one costing under $20, that are all guaranteed to actually work together.
    Think in terms of a super suite of products that can be offered at low incremental cost and then tie you back to an annual fee which is split between the software provider and the OEM.   Though eventually this split could include the retailer, or ,in the case of WWAN connected products, a carrier.   It forecasts a time in which you may never again buy a software package in a store and get the same kind of support and reliability as a consumer that only the biggest and best run companies can provide to their users.  

    Read on the next page: Desktops without wires, cloud computing, security

    Desktops without wires

    This phrase not only points to wireless networking but wireless everything, including power, the monitor connection, mouse and keyboard, and other currently wired peripherals. You’ll walk into your office, drop the notebook onto your desk and you are instantly powered up and connected to all of your desktop peripherals. This trend is going down two non-mutually exclusive paths. The first is Wireless USB, formally known as Ultra Wideband, which can handle everything including displays, with the exception of the power part. The other is an intelligent pad that could do everything but likely will be primarily focused on the power part of the solution and is likely to be built into desks and conference tables sometime in the future.
    Granted, there have been advancements in broadcast power, but it doesn’t appear that we are close enough to provide solutions to have folks talking about them at this conference just yet.    

    Netbook/Cloud/Desktop PC paired offerings

    In the down economy, the OEMs here at the event are clearly excited about netbooks which are showing both increasing sales rates and margins at the moment.   But it is generally realized that they don’t have the performance that most want on the desktop even though they appear to be more than adequate as a mobile offering particularly when compared to more limited and similarly priced cell phone solutions.  But if you read between the lines of what folks were saying, it looks like there is a move to build a solution that ties desktop computers, cloud based services, and netbooks together into a solution which turns the netbook into a wireless terminal, when connected to WWAN or Wi-Fi networks.  
    What was particularly interesting was the number of cell phone carriers who are planning on bringing out netbooks with their own brand on them and then providing incentives for the solution. This could result in netbooks that sell for around $100 or may even be free when coupled with a 2 or 3 year service plan. But I think the model that is being missed is that of the Redfly, a netbook sized device that basically pulls the screen off of a smartphone and just increases the screen size and adds a decent sized keyboard.   

    Security:  Bricking your stolen laptop, Integrating your cellphone

    Lenovo, Intel, and Phoenix demonstrated the very real capability of being able to use current technology from all three vendors to brick a laptop that has been stolen. As soon as you notice your laptop is gone, you place a call and the laptop locks up effectively, making it worthless to the thief.  This got me really thinking about the technology in both devices, which will be increasingly aware of each other and working together. This could work both ways and because the notebooks, particularly netbooks, will be increasingly connected all the time and more and more cell phones have GPS capability so they know exactly where they are. This suggests you could not only brick either device from the other, but see exactly where it is.  This could create some interesting confrontations and might make thefts of either virtually obsolete at some future point.  

    Wrapping up

    What is clear from the Phoenix Technologies Strategy 2009 conference is that we are still approaching an industry change that will likely make the move to the PC trivial by comparison.   The economic conditions are forcing companies together to define unique services like PC application stores, massive security enhancements, cloud based Internet services, and ever more creatively priced and funded low cost mobile hardware. Toss on top the dropping prices of WWAN services, the emergence of WiMax, and technologies like Intel’s Atom and you get the sense of elements of this change, but we still don’t have a full picture of the result yet.
    I still think we are moving towards Gene Roddenberry’s idea of a Global, which we discussed earlier, a portable personal device, which is defined by what it is connected to. We’ll see, but one thing is sure, we are moving towards this future at Warp speed and my original 2015 target may actually be conservative.

    Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts.  Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them.  Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.