Is PC innovation dead?

When was the last time you got excited about buying a desktop PC?

Most likely, it's been years. Long gone are the days when countless aficionados would pore over computer magazines comparing feeds, speeds and the relative merits of graphics processors. No longer does the technology press breathlessly follow every new generation of chips and speculate what's coming next. Rare is the person who can't wait to accumulate enough cash to pay for a top-of-the-line desktop PC -- gamers excluded, of course.

Today, buying a desktop PC is about as exciting as purchasing a toaster oven. You know what it needs to do, you know the basic specs, you buy it, and then go about your business. This is as true in IT departments as it is in homes. Desktop PCs have turned into not much more than basic commodities, with not a great deal to differentiate them.

There are plenty of reasons for this. Standardization plays into it; desktop PCs are largely built from interchangeable components. Even more important is that the power of desktop PCs has far outstripped the capabilities of software. If you've bought a PC in the last several years for general-purpose computing, its power almost assuredly remains largely untapped. I'm a perfect example of this. I bought a quad-core PC several years ago. But software hasn't been written to take advantage of those four cores. Windows and most applications aren't smart enough to split out tasks and services among the cores intelligently. So what's the point of buying a new PC, when the power in my old PC isn't even close to being tapped out?

Consider the dearth of great new applications. For most PC-based software, the thrill is gone. Web-based applications and services are where the excitement is.

All this doesn't mean that hardware innovation is dead. It's alive and well -- in fact, we live in a golden age of hardware innovation. The iPhone and iPad , the Droid and other Android-based phones, BlackBerries, netbooks , lightweight notebooks like the MacBook Air -- there's a long list of remarkable hardware being designed, and it shows no sign of letting up. If anything, it's increasing. The competition in the mobile phone market is as fierce if not fiercer than had been among PC makers during the height of the PC innovation boom, with next-generation devices constantly leapfrogging one another.

That's where creativity reigns in building applications as well. I recently purchased a Droid, and with it I can scan a product's bar code and find product reviews, snap a picture of a sign in a foreign language and have it automatically translated for me, get turn-by-turn GPS directions, and far more. And I can do many of the same things I can do on a desktop PC, including reading and editing Office documents, and check my e-mail. And oh yes, I can make phone calls as well.

Does this mean that desktop PCs are going away? Certainly not, although increasingly they are being replaced by laptops. It does mean, though, that the best engineers and developers are migrating to work on the Web and mobile devices rather than traditional PCs and client-based PC applications.

It also means that IT staff, from the top on down, need to take a hard look at the future and their own skill sets. The cloud is becoming more important than the hardware that runs the cloud. Mobile devices and alternate ways of accessing enterprise data are becoming more important than ever. If IT staff doesn't follow today's innovations, even if those innovations don't yet affect their jobs, they'll ultimately find themselves in the same situation as PC hardware -- an easily replaced commodity.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Read more about hardware in Computerworld's Hardware Knowledge Center.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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