Personal computers at crossroads Back   Home  
At a splashy Silicon Valley celebration for the so-called 20th anniversary of the personal computer earlier this week, software mogul Bill Gates and computer chip titan Andrew Grove stood surrounded by admirers.

Their grins couldn't have been wider.

For the last two decades these two modern-day billionaire industrialists have stood at the centre of the economic and social juggernaut sparked by the personal computer.

Some 500 million desktop and laptop computers are in use today.

Analysts forecast that another 138 million of the machines will be sold this year.

PCs are now in 64 per cent of US homes.

One and half times more computers will be sold in the United States than bicycles and televisions.

Microsoft's founder, now in his mid-40s, runs a company that reports annual revenues exceeding 25 billion dollars, most of that earned from the sale of its Windows operating system, the underlying software that lets a computers run other programs.

"It's been a stunning economic movement," a grinning Gates said.

"I've been lucky to have been a part of this incredible movement," said Grove, the Budapest, Hungary, immigrant who co-founded the world's largest computer chipmaker, Intel. "But we're now facing fundamental challenges."

Wednesday's party marked the 20th anniversary of the introduction of IBM's first personal computer, which was officially released on August 12, 1981.

Though personal computers had been in use years before then by technology hobbyists, the first IBM PC, with a monochrome monitor and no hard drive, was the first computer aimed at the general consumer market.

For all its posturing this week, the horizon of the PC industry is starting to see some clouds, which some say are there at the behest of Bill Gates himself.

For the first time, the PC industry is seeing a slowdown in demand, according to reports released this week by computer hardware sales tracker IDC.

Computer chip revenues, an industry trade group reported Friday, are expected to be off by 26 per cent.

Computer makers such as Compaq, Gateway, Hewlett Packard have been laying off workers in the face of declining demand.

This past May, a US survey found that US citizens are becoming increasingly annoyed by their desktop computers, with many fantasising about a job without a PC.

"People just aren't turned on that much by their computers," said Mitch Kapor, who designed the early Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet. "They're starting to see them as a drudgery."

"And PCs are getting boring," added Kapor. "Other than the Internet, there's been nothing new for a long time."

Gates says the next generation PC that will reinvigorate the industry be small, portable, and linked to the Internet with high-speed wireless connections.

"It will take years and billions of dollars of investment and intense innovation to get there," said Gates.

But some are saying that Microsoft's dominance, currently being tested by anti-trust lawyers, isn't going to speed things along.

Industry insiders complain that the company's Windows software, which runs on more than 95 per cent of the world's computers, smothers innovation.

"You have to either invent stuff that works with Windows, which means the existing PC platform, or else you're doomed to be a marginal player," said Kapor.

Ted Waitt, the pony-tailed founder of computer maker Gateway, said the dominance of Windows creates a two-edged sword: Windows allows companies like his to build to one standard. But moving beyond the Windows, he said, is "problematical."

"It is an interesting duality," said Waitt, whose company is mulling the closure of its European operations in the face of the computer demand slowdown. "We are fast coming to the point where we have to deal with that question." z
This article was published in DailyStar of Bangladesh.