Saturday, September 8, 2012

Mobile platforms slowing the production of new PCs

In a recent post from the NY Times they featured an article about how portable devices such as phones and pads have cut deeply into the market for processors for PCs and Laptops - except in the area of processors for large server type systems.  While I'm excited about the opportunities that mobile and lightweight platforms offer I fear that in the long run this trend could significantly damage the development of bigger and better and more powerful personal computer systems.

For the last 30 years we've enjoyed rapid growth of the power and efficiency of processor systems.  This is due in part to the fact that software has consistently outstripped the ability of hardware to deliver the very best experience.  Especially in platforms such as gaming, but even in platforms such as office applications, getting a big, new computer every 3-4 years became de riguer.  As a result we had a constant sales cycle of new hardware, and the processor companies had a constant incentive to invent and deploy faster and more efficient hardware that could perform more powerful tasks, address more memory, and create richer user experiences.  But somewhere in the mid 2000's that growth slowed.  Suddenly people realized that the stuff they did every day (access a document, check something on the web, watch a video) didn't actually require these powerful new processors, and - due to the popularity of laptops and smart cell phones in the last decade - the processor manufacturers brought out new chips that - for the first time really - weren't more powerful than the ones they were producing for PCs but were smaller, less powerful, but perhaps more power efficient.  Thus was born the transition to portable hand held systems.

Now don't get me wrong - I love my Android tablet and my smart cell phone.  But I wouldn't want to do any serious work on them.  They're OK for posting on Facebook (which by the way they barely seem able to do with Facebook's complexity) and for watching video on a small screen.  But they're not so great for big spreadsheets, or number crunching, or gaming or any of a number of other things I do with my PC.  Well that's OK you say - we can do those things in the cloud now and leverage that (which of course drives the sales of processors intended for the server market) and that is true but - it means that the processor manufacturers like Intel and AMD are starting to back away from their commitment to employ and produce more powerful processors on standard desktop and laptop platforms.  It seems to me that new processors in this category (And even the processors in the server category) have gotten evolutionarily more powerful, but at a much slower pace and without the revolution that would herald in the next generation of super powerful processors that we can own and control and program ourselves.  And in the long run that worries me.  Without volume sales there is less incentive to constantly innovate and produce new products.

Part of the personal computer revolution was that we were no longer beholden to the mainframe, or the company's big iron machines.  If we wanted to we could contain a 30gb database right on our own system, query it, massage it, do cool things with it, etc.  We didn't need to be hooked to a network to do this, we didn't have to ask for the powers that be to install new servers or spin up new instances - it was completely under our control.  I see those days retreating with this new trend to lighter weight, low memory, low processor power front ends and heavy duty back ends.  I see a future where we as software developers and users are saddled with fighting (again) the limitations of our front ends, and relying on the good nature and knowledge of those building the back end systems to provide us with the performance we need.  I don't think this is a good thing.

I love being able to be chatting in a conversation and have someone say "hey do you know if" and be able to whip out my Thunderbolt from HTC and answer it by just running a quick query on the web.  I just wonder what the world will be like if all our systems are as stupid as my Thunderbolt (or iPhone or any other mobile platform) - because I really really like my PC and it's capabilities. speed and performance.  I don't WANT it to be at thin client.  What do you think - how do you think that the portable platforms and cloud computing will effect the next generation of personal computers.