Back in the late 1990s, the then IBM PC Company was creating a lot of very novel PCs as it attempted to differentiate from a market largely defined by beige desktop and laptop PCs that looked bad and worked worse. One of the most interesting ideas was that of a Modular PC. This basically put the core guts of a laptop - chipset, processor, memory, and storage - into a box similar in size to a deck of cards. The company envisioned a set of accessories that ranged from a smartphone to a full-on desktop that would go with it, but the IBM CEO at the time killed the idea. A few years later, a little company called Antelope Technologies brought the thing to market using a Transmeta processor; it found a small niche but didn’t survive.
Almost 20 years later, Intel is going to give it a run with something called the Intel Compute Card, which addresses almost all of the problems the old IBM Modular PC had. (By the way, this is Intel’s second shot at this and it is amazing that it’s following a similar path to the one IBM started so many years ago.)
The Evolution of the Modular Computer
The concept for the modular computer was initially founded to correct a serious consumer problem. Processors, storage and memory were very expensive and users were being forced to buy it two or three times for their smartphones (which were just starting to gain traction), laptop/Windows tablet, and/or desktop computer. If you could create a module that had these core elements, the user would only have to buy one set and then basically plug the module that contained this technology into a smartphone, tablet, laptop or dock to get the function of multiple devices without having to buy the redundant components. In addition, sync wasn’t available back then, wireless technology sucked, and we didn’t even know what “the cloud” was, so this also solved the problem of being able to get to your stuff while mobile.
A lot of discussion surrounded whether the module should have a screen and some functionality or not, and it was decided not to include it because these aspects created problems for other applications like laptops, tablets, and even PCs, which had their own screens.
The Problems That Killed Modular
A number of problems killed the effort. First, prices for processors, memory and storage started to drop quickly, making redundancy less of a problem. The market developed syncing applications, and wireless got better, so keeping your stuff with you on a variety of devices got a ton easier. Intel’s technology wasn’t mobile enough back then, and Transmeta largely went out of business. Given the low runs for the core compute module and all of the accessories, the resulting cost was higher than buying a better-performing multi-device solution. Oh, and the size of the computing module was simply too big, resulting in tablets and smartphones that looked stupid.
I was approached to be CEO of one of the efforts related to it back then. I turned down the opportunity because I was convinced the technology wasn’t ready and that it would take a company like Intel or Microsoft to create the core technology and the ecosystem that would make this work, not to mention fund the effort enough to get it to critical mass.
Intel’s Compute Card
Boy, what a difference a couple of decades make. Intel has aggressively made its technology more portable, resulting in a core module that is the size of a small stack of business cards. Prices have come down sharply, which should keep this module affordable, and it is thin enough to go into a laptop or tablet carrier without the resulting combination being too ugly.
While sync and wireless connectivity are common, so are concerns surrounding wireless security, often making it safer to move the files physically rather than electronically for some industries. And finally, and most recently, concerns about laptops being turned into bombs have resulted in an effort to ban them on planes. Renting an approved laptop in an airport for the flight might be a possibility, but the security concerns would be daunting, plus you’d need a configuration that didn’t have a battery (and would be able to live off the power available at the seat).
Renting a shell that would use your module would likely be far safer, for the airline and your data, resulting in a very timely alternative to carrying a laptop or tablet on a long flight. At some point, particularly in first class, the airline might provide a dock and a screen so the experience could become even more convenient.
Wrapping Up: The Improved Modular Idea
The old IBM idea of a modular computer had a number of critical faults. Over time, one by one, those faults have been corrected and the Intel Compute Card is the impressive result. Still, to fully reach potential, it needs a unique mass market use (like being the only way to safely bring a laptop onto a plane), and an eco-system that fleshes out the offering (and Intel remains one of the few companies that can even do that).
In the short term, this could be an ideal way to address some security needs, provide an imbedded computer with prices at scale across a variety of machines that need PC functionality, or have a home PC that can be easily moved from room to room (dock to dock). Not to mention that this might be a good solution for small kids on computers, where the module could be locked up during times when the little darlings aren’t supervised.
In the end, I like that someone is still trying to make this work. Let’s see where their imaginations take them, and us, this time.
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+