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12.12.2004

How to build a better PC?

David Gelernter has a piece on OpinionJournal regarding IBM's sale of its PC division to the Chinese company Lenovo. While he shows great insight into the issues surrounding the PC, his analysis of IBM's move and the negative impact to the PC is off base. He ignores many crucial points in his analysis.

To start off lets address the most obvious flaws. As Power Line reader Robert Dammers points out,
"his point about larger screens seems odd -- larger screens *are* a growing sector of the industry, but these (and the graphics cards that support them) are all supplied by companies other than IBM (like LG or Samsung and Nvidia)."
Most manufacturers today, indeed the most successful, do not build systems for the ground up. Simple economics dictate that it is far more efficient to acquire components from specialized manufacturers who can build these components better, cheaper, with higher quality and a lower cost than if the PC manufacturer was to build it himself. Of course the argument against this is that if PC manufacturers are solely "assemblers" the research and development required for PC advancement is lost if there are not companies like IBM devoting resources to new discoveries and breakthroughs. This is simply not true.

Component manufacturers have a vested interest in improving and re-designing their components. There are so many companies out there pushing the envelope that it is competitive necessity for every company to invest time and money in R&D. Just look at the advancements in video cards and RAM over the last couple of years, it has been remarkable, and companies like IBM, HP and Dell have had little to no impact on it other than purchasing components and backing manufacturers.

The second fallacy in Gelernter's reasoning is that all of the improvements to the PC are hardware or manufacturer driven. Let's take a look at his scenario of the use of PC's with "transparent information sharing." Here is Gelernter's narrative:
IBM might have done well selling PCs with built-in "transparent information sharing." As soon as you connected such a machine to the Internet, all your electronic documents would immediately be available--no matter where you created or last worked on them. If all your computers had transparent information-sharing, you could start composing an e-mail at work, touch it up during your drive home (using a--theoretical--in-car, audio-interface IBM PC) and finish it up on a laptop in your backyard. Lots of businesses and people would have shelled out for such PCs.
This is a great scenario, and he hit the nail on the head in terms of where the PC needs to go. Where he made his mistake is on who he feels should be pushing these developments. The beauty of a commoditized PC is that the hard ware would be standard, so functionality like this should be developed in the software, not the hardware. With standard hardware any machine would have this capability. So in the scenario above you work PC could be a Dell, the in-car system could be by Motorola, your home PC could be custom built by you, and the home laptop could be a Sony. If the functionality is hardware based you would have to have all IBM PCs.

In addition the economics of the PC industry dictate that competitive companies drive to a commoditized product. As Dell has demonstrated, the only way to make consistent profits in the PC industry in this climate is to master the supply-chain, commoditize the product and use R&D dollars to design systems which integrate components from disparate manufacturers into high quality, standards-based machines.

And for all those who believe that this maturation of the PC industry threatens the advancement of technology, they should not be concerned. Number one, the 'Digital Revolution' has illustrated that if there is a good idea out there, it will be realized and consumers will endorse it with their hard-earned dollars. There will always be companies like Falcon Systems and Aliennware which are pushing the envelope when it comes to hardware performance.

In the end there should be no tears over IBM's recent move, the PC industry will be just fine in America, and the best hope for advancements like Gerlernter advertised is advanced software running on standards-based PCs, not proprietary hardware solutions.


UPDATE: Fellow Power Line reader and blogger Ric James has a few interesting comments on this as well from the perspective of a network engineer and self-described "geek":
"[I was] literally sitting at my own PC with my mouth hanging open, had to think, 'Is this guy insane or just an idiot?' With all the incredibly well documented hacking and viral attacks going on out there on the Internet, this guy's idea for making a better PC is to have the thing fling open the doors on all your files and make everything available the second it connects to the Net? Earth to Professor Gelernter: it's been done. It was called 'sharing' on the Windows O/S and it was the problem, not the promise. When always-on broadband connections started up, the people who first got them (who weren't also network engineers or techno-weenies) got their collective butts handed to them. Hackers, crackers, script-kiddies, and just the occasional sightseer went scanning for open PC's and when they found them, they exploited them. It was a disaster, not a neato feature."
Very interesting points, and I might add they take a similar point of view that I do, the issues Gerlernter has with the PC has more to do with software that hardware.

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