The Marginalization of the PC

Carl Weinschenk

Folks who follow modern telecommunications or those who simply use these tools know how powerful smartphones are. Still, it comes as a shock to think that they could replace desktop PCs.


That's precisely what Humphrey Chen, director of new technology development at Verizon Wireless, suggested last week at MobileBeat 2010 in San Francisco. The idea is for users to slap on a keyboard, monitor, camera and mouse and compute away.


Chen suggests that the advent of gigahertz processors for smartphones has narrowed the gap with PCs. Verizon Wireless-which according to Chen has spent $9 billion on 700 MHz spectrum and billions more on the network itself- is seeing download speeds of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) and uploads half as fast in its Boston and Seattle Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks. That, coupled with the devices themselves, means that we are entering a world in which PCs have ceased to be the dominant end point devices.


The potential use of a smartphone as a faux desktop makes perfect sense. The processing power of the mobile devices, the power of the networks and the depth and sophistication of the ecosystems all are growing. The great growth of the mobile world, together with the related explosion of the cloud-a great place to stash data and applications-is remaking the network. The growth of PCs, on the other hand, generally has leveled off.


In the early days of the Internet, one of the big debates was where the lion's share of intelligence would reside: Would it be in the networks' core? Would it be at the end points? Would pipes be dumb or smart? The answer now is that intelligence and data are all over: in corporate data centers, in cloud-based facilities not tied to a specific company, in PCs and in small devices carried around in people's pockets.


The thread that makes this possible is the increased connectivity speeds. The earlier debates were conducted before the arrival of true broadband and, of course, before 4G networks. Today, it's possible to think of the entire network as one big (OK, one really, really big) computing device, since the speed of the network renders the physical distance between the user, the applications and the data much less meaningful than in the past. In other words, the high-speed networks emulate the busses in a PC.


That puts context around Chen's comments. The ability to even consider a tiny handheld device to be capable of acting like a PC suggests that we are living in an era in which the configuration of a network will not depend as much on performance limitations as where those running the network want the assets to be. This will have more to do with security and disaster recovery/business continuity than with network performance.

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