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IT Strategy: Death of the PC

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AS I travel and work around the world, the demise of the PC and fixed-line telephone are increasingly visible in every realm of business. The world has gone mobile with a vengeance. Laptops, tablets and mobile phones now dominate the office and all places of work. Homes have become the domain of the ‘small screen’ as the boundaries between work, leisure, home, rest and play become ever more transparent. A further manifestation of this change sees young people no longer using fixed-line connections unless it is for broadband access. In the business world, the mobile PBX apps allows people to be ‘local’ no matter where we are, fixed or moving.

Our many mobile devices are truly personal in a way the personal computer never was and never could be. There is now no differentiation between our personal and professional activities, and everything resides on the same device or family of devices. As a result, we are seeing an erosion of corporate control and centralism in favour of diversity, flexibility and personal freedom. This in turn sees the emergence of new forms of working, innovation and empowerment, all of which are necessary for a networked and fast-changing world. At the extreme, this is manifest in the rise of BYOD and BMOB (Be My Own Boss). Never before have there been so many self-employed contractors, consultants and small companies serving the needs of big industry, institutions and government.

The wider technology impact of all this has been falling PC sales month-on-month for the past five years or more at a rate of about 8% per annum. Needless to say, this has impacted on specialist chip producers and manufacturers as the market focus has moved on to ‘mobile friendly’ solutions. In addition, the hotbed of innovation and expectation is no longer in the PC sector; it has moved to the sphere of mobility. This is a far-reaching revolution that has already seen the rise of the app, social, gaming and gambling sectors. Everything is now immediate and near real time, with people spending more time on the small screen rather than the big, including TV. The key element is now interaction and sharing. In short, open data, workspaces, video conferencing (and perhaps VR/AR), any time, anywhere. All of this answers to the human need for connection, collaboration and communities for work and play.

We are now a world away from the dead hand of the fixed-line telephone and PC which served us well in a slow-moving and well-behaved world, but cannot facilitate a future of accelerating change where our big challenge is the timely, and dynamic, creation of tools, techniques and solutions to address new and novel problems as they arise. So in the next phase we will see many new components contributing to this need, including cloud, IoT, Big and Small Data plus sensor technologies for health and industry. A large percentage of these will be built into our mobile devices or appear as dongles and adapters with plug, NearField, BlueTooth and/or Wi-Fi connections. Each of us will become invisible and unconscious ‘data gatherers’ feeding the bigger machine of weather forecasting, pollution control, traffic and crowd monitoring, and perhaps more importantly network and societal management. Where people and things are, where they are going and what they are doing and experiencing will become vital data in the way we maintain and manage our infrastructures and our society.

Ultimately, the key to success here lies in the relationship between processing and storage energy density. And if we really are heading towards 50-250 billion things online, with wearables instead of mobiles, we will see an even bigger divide between the air- and fluid-cooled silicon chips of the PC and the low power CMOS chips in our mobiles. Distributed working, collaboration, processing and intelligence will create an even more radical divide between the old and the new. Can the old PC manufacturing industry survive? Probably. But it will have to innovate and change faster to address the new challenges and markets. Can the new and dominant low-power mobile CMOS manufacturing industry survive? Definitely. But it too will have to innovate and change faster. The limitations of silicon technology are evident, well defined and right in front of us, but so are a swath of new and promising alternatives including carbon nano technologies. Many of these look ripe to power us into a future of even more personal technologies – including implants.

Peter Cochrane is an IT consultant and the former chief technology officer at BT

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