Do desktop computers have a future?

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Sun box and Pentium 90 from 2005The market for desktop computers is in desperate trouble (and that for laptops not much healthier) – the latest sign being the decision to take Dell private.

The issue is not that we don’t need desktops and laptops anymore, but rather that we do not need new ones: while Moore’s Law continues to increase the number of transistors we can fit on silicon, we cannot drive those transistors at ever faster rates as we cannot dissipate the heat.

So instead of having an option of shelling out to buy a new desktop (or laptop) to match the speed of our rivals’ machines, we can soldier on with the old machines, get a smaller, low energy device (such as a tablet – Moore’s Law won’t deliver faster devices but will deliver smaller ones of equivalent computing power or lower power consumption) or maybe buy a multicore device (but these too have their limits – bus based designs start to eat up power as they get more processors and the speed increase from putting on an extra processor falls far off a linear increase).

We might, of course, just opt for a no more powerful machine but just one that looks better – something Apple has profited from.

In the end this means that the economics of desktop computers is likely to shift fundamentally and as the market consolidates prices may even start rising.

There are still technological advances that will drive performance improvements – faster storage is the obvious example. But the golden age of the PC is over – indeed it probably has been for a few years now.

Microsoft’s desperation to get Windows 8 out the door and across all the possible platforms is one of the reactions to this: but right now I have to wonder if Redmond’s finest will still be with us in ten years. Win8 seems to be something of a turkey and is not making any headway in the smartphone/tablet world and if we do not buy new machines every 24 months, why should we shell out for a new copy of “Office”? And, of course, Linux is still nibbling away.

In the longer term new hardware designs – such as thousands of CPUs on a “network on a chip” could turn things upside down again (I should be researching this now and not writing this blog) – but to fully exploit the power of such systems we are going to need to rethink most of our software and programming models. And it’s still not clear to me if those sorts of machines will ever get to the desktop (as opposed to powering an ever more powerful internet of things through embedded computers).