There is a standard news article that gets trotted out every month or so: “Is the PC era waning?”. Maybe, maybe not, it’s something that has been predicted for a decade. But the end of the personal computer (Apple or Windows) would be a bad thing for almost everyone except a few wealthy special interests.

The PC has transformed society, empowered people and businesses and generated enormous wealth. Having lived through the era of the multi-million-dollar mainframe and the $100,000 workstation, I never take my PC for granted. The massive PC market, with its economy of scale, has driven innovation in hardware and software that would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. The $200 video card in my computer does more than the SGI workstation I had at Princeton University, which cost as much as a small house. The Windows operating system has a level of technical sophistication that computer scientists like myself could not have imagined when we were working on UNIX in the 1980s.

There are two alternatives to the PC that various factions would like to see replace it. Let’s consider them briefly:

One is the thin client. This is the idea that you own a cheap device that has just enough smarts in it to control a screen and a keyboard and connect to the internet. Your data and computing happens remotely, in a server center owned by Google or IBM or Oracle or someone of that ilk. I’m old enough to remember timesharing. In grad school, if you were at the bottom of the pecking order, you had an X-Terminal on your desk. These were UNIX thin clients that connected to our DEC mainframe, and everyone hated them with a passion. Because so many people were sharing the same server, there was a never-ending hassle over disk quotas and space. And if a few people decided to do some number crunching, say goodbye to your performance. The PC gives the user control. Your data is there beside your desk. The computing power is there for you to use when you want it.

Another alternative is the appliance, like game consoles or mobile phones. The problem there is that these are closed devices. If the PC was replaced by the Play Station, then SONY or someone like them would have total control over software development.

Unlike the Playstation, the Apple and Windows PC are openly programable. If you have a new idea for a program that people can use, get a free copy of Microsoft Visual Studio Express, write the program, and sell it. Microsoft bends over backwards to help you do this, because it increases the value of their platform. For a few hundred dollars, you can get a better version of VS, sample code, documentation, development kits, etc. But if you have an idea for a new Playstation game, you need to get SONY’s permission to develop and deploy it. Both the appliance and the thin-client model concentrate control and ownership of software development in a few hands.

Given the astounding success of the computer hardware and software industry, I’m always surprised by how many people are eager to jump in and radically change it. They’re ready to shift all the power and money to the server industry. Or they’re ready to see the PC replaced with a closed non-programable console. Or they’re ready to pull the rug out from under the economics of the software industry by taking programmers’ property rights away from them. And of course, any of these things could happen, because sometimes we can’t stop ourselves from ruining a good thing.

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