One of the most interesting products that never made it to market in the 1990s was the modular computer. And it really tried. The idea was a good one: Create a core computing module that could be surrounded with different cases and accessories so it could be customized for any use and reconfigured as needed. The idea was so good, but the core technology so flawed, that the concept has been bouncing around for nearly 20 years. Finally, with the Intel Compute Card, Intel may have finally gotten it right. With a lot of revolutionary things, the idea significantly leads the ability for technology to make it real. But, if the idea is good enough, it hangs in there until the technology can catch up.
Let’s talk about the problems and promise of a true modular computer.
IBM’s Revolutionary Modular Idea
Today, the idea of a core module with computing capability doesn’t seem that revolutionary to all of us walking around with smartphones. But back in the 1990s, when we thought laptops at five pounds were incredibly light, desktop computers were these huge beige boxes that sat on desks, and the Simon smartphone was compared to a brick, it was pretty amazing. The idea was that you needed something more flexible, and if you could spread the cost of the core technology (processor, graphics, memory and storage) across a number of form factors, you could create something that was far more cost-effective than the combination of laptop/desktop/PDA that we had. Realize that, then, desktops cost in the $2K range, laptops in the $3K range, and PDAs like the Apple Newton were around a grand. That means to have one of each would set you back around $7K, but if you could reuse those core components you could get something very similar, and your data would automatically move between forms, for something closer to $4K, for a whopping $3K savings.
It looked good on paper, but IBM at the time was bleeding money and had just had a series of revolutionary PC products flop in market. Even though IBM CEO Louis Gerstner seemed to like the concept, he killed it. And, to be clear, it likely wouldn’t have worked because, to get the module small enough, you had to make some rather massive performance tradeoffs, so you ended up with a desktop that was slow, a laptop that was slow, and a PDA that had impressive performance but no battery life.
Dell’s Secret Success
One of the things that we rarely talk about is Dell’s very successful imbedded computer business. This is on point because for around a decade, Dell has been selling what amounts to a modular desktop computer into industries like health care, and made billions doing it. Basically, for industries where computing is needed as part of the solution, Dell has one designed to fit into the solution and then handles support of the computing unit. This allows the company with the solution to focus on the part it is expert at, while Dell handles the part with the computer, lowering the price not only of the solution but of the support, as well. This unit is massively successful.
However, a lot has changed in the last 15 years. As a result of the massive move to mobile, Intel can build a processor with decent battery life and low cost for the core module (about the size of a thick credit card). In addition, form factors have exploded as vendors have added computing power to everything from cars to vacuum cleaners, all of which could benefit from a common core computing module and operating platform. This means you get a computer with decent performance in a form factor in line with a smartphone that then can be imbedded in a variety of solutions and, with appropriate cloud backup and restore services, removed and replaced by the user or support tech in a matter of moments if there is a problem. In addition, because these things are now solid state, their failure rate is a fraction of what it was when we used rotating media.
While I doubt we’ll see these in smartphones or even in regular PC solutions at first (though they would make an interesting desktop alternative, particularly in places where security requires the machines be removed and/or destroyed quickly), they will likely find themselves in even more interesting places than Dell’s solution did. Given that Dell has the organization already in place to use something like this, Dell is, at least initially, likely to be the biggest beneficiary. HP and Lenovo will clearly be working on this as well.
Wrapping Up: IBM’s Old Idea Is New Again
It is interesting to see the PC industry evolve. In this case, from large dedicated PCs to small card-like devices that can be built into a variety of increasingly connected devices in all shapes, sizes and colors. The old IBM team should be proud; their idea has morphed from something interesting to something almost magical. Now it will be up to their successors to see if they can do some incredibly interesting things with it. I’m betting they will.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+