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Life after PC?

The personal computer isn't going anywhere, Intel and Microsoft argue. Rather than being replaced by handheld devices and Internet appliances, the personal computer will become "the center of that digital universe.''

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 15, 2001


LAS VEGAS -- In the battle for supremacy of the future high-tech world, the PC empire has struck back.

Intel Corp., the computer chipmaker, and Microsoft, the software giant, brushed off suggestions that gadgets such as cell phones, personal organizers and simplified Internet appliances will replace their crown jewel, the personal computer. Instead, they're convinced those devices will need the PC to be effective.

"It is a big digital universe," Intel chief executive Craig Barrett said. "And if you look at the center of that digital universe, the central focal point for the big bang, it really is the core of the PC . . . and we are getting lots and lots of devices attached to the PC."

Both companies have maintained for years that the personal computer won't fade away. What was striking at the Consumer Electronics Show that ended last week was their similar views, even terminology. They are fighting a perception that the PC is passe as competitors release a wave of new gadgets. Add the hype that each company uses to promote its latest gadget or technology and consumers have good reason to feel confused.

photo
[Photo: AP]
“The PC is going to be the place where you store the information, and really the center of control.”-- Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft
The "extended PC" era, as Barrett and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates called it in separate presentations at the trade show, will have more gadgets, connected mostly through wireless technology, to share information, entertainment and communications. Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs gave a similar view at last week's Macworld conference in San Francisco, though his vision has the Mac as the hub.

That means, for example, someone could load a photo into a computer and immediately send it to an electronic "smart" photo frame, the Web, a personal organizer and e-mail with a few clicks of a button. Information on a handheld personal organizer could automatically be transferred to a computer or another device when someone carrying the organizer walks into a room. Someone's favorite digital music would be available wherever that person goes, either through handheld gadgets or Web access.

"The PC is going to be the place where you store the information, and really the center of control," Gates said, "the place where you can edit the information, where you can communicate it out to your friends."

At the same time they were defending the PC's role, both companies used the trade show to display a newer side of their businesses: expansion into consumer products and services.

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Intel, the world's largest computer chipmaker, started its consumer line in 1997 with PC cameras. Since then, it has added home networking devices, a line of toys -- including a microscope, camera and Sound Morpher -- and wireless devices such as a keyboard, mouse and game pad. It also has an Internet appliance it sells to Internet service providers for use by customers.

Its latest entry is a digital music player called the Pocket Concert, and coming soon are more wireless devices, such as a Web pad for Internet access and a chat pad for instant messages and e-mail.

"What we're really trying to do is promote new uses and users for the PC and extend the PC," Barrett said. "We're not trying to move our business from PCs to consumer electronics."

Microsoft's Gates emphasized a digital lifestyle, with "islands of information on different devices" coming together through PCs. "We have to make sure complexities don't hold things back," Gates said, acknowledging that Microsoft has more to do on making things simpler to use.

Part of Microsoft's vision is how people will use TV, not just watch it, and a key element is the set-top box. Gates showed off Ultimate TV, which is expected to be available this spring. It will have sets from Sony and RCA and satellite service from DirecTV. Viewers can watch TV and surf the Web with picture-in-picture technology or watch one show while recording a second with personal video recorders that have two tuners.

But Microsoft's big move this year is into the video game market with its much-anticipated Xbox console. Gates gave a preview that showed detailed graphics that compare with the best animation available.

While it looks like a game console, inside it's a computer: 64 megabytes of memory, an Intel 733-megahertz processor, an 8-gigabyte hard drive, a DVD tray, an Ethernet port to connect to the Internet and allow users to download new software and games.

A release date and price haven't been set for the Xbox, but the company says it expects to be competitive with the $300 PlayStation 2.

The Xbox can be used as an argument for or against Gates' vision of a PC-centered universe. With its built-in network card and USB connections for other devices it could become part of a home entertainment system run from a personal computer. On the other hand, users of the Xbox and PlayStation 2 can use the game boxes to play DVDs and surf the Web without a PC.

"Is this the post-PC era, or is it the PC-plus era?" asked Robin Raskin, editor in chief of FamilyPC magazine, adding that it could take years to sort everything out. "I don't think the PC is going away."

- Information from Times wires was used in this report. Contact Dave Gussow at gussow@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4228.

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