Two years ago this summer, there was a big change in the personal computer. It got cheaper.
But that was it. Despite the computer industry's reputation for ultra-swift change, there's been little besides the normal technological development.The next two years hold more promise.
The main circuitry and software of a PC will get more extras. The industry will make big strides in toward making a PC and its accessories connect as simply as a stereo amplifier and speakers.
And the hunger to satisfy consumers will spur other improvements, even if they're as simple as pop-in color accent panels.
"The PC in two years will not be that significantly different than it is today," said Dan Schwartz, publisher of Home PC magazine. "But companies will work on small ways to make the computer user-friendly."
THE MAIN STUFF
The core of better PCs remains the relentless march of chip, or microprocessor, technology. The number of circuits jammed on a chip has doubled every 18 months for 30 years. Next year, Intel Corp. will keep up that pace with its next-generation microprocessor, code-named P6.
PC buyers will also have more choices for a computer's core "brain" chip. The Alpha chip of Digital Equipment Corp. and the PowerPC chip of IBM, Apple Computer Inc. and Motorola Inc. will be hitting the mainstream.
Two years ago, the chip that powered PCs costing between $1,000 and $2,000, the price which most consumers are willing to pay, was Intel's 386. Such machines had 2 megabytes of memory and could store 40 megabytes of data on hard drives.
Now, that money buys a machine with a more sophisticated 486 chip and 8 megabytes of main memory and a hard drive of up to 500 megabytes.
In 1996, it will buy a machine based on a Pentium, P6 or a second-generation PowerPC chip with 32 megabytes of main memory and a hard drive exceeding 1,000 megabytes.
A typical modem will move data at 28,800 bits per second, up from 9,600 today, and 17-inch monitors will be increasingly common.
Older chips and components may end up as part of appliances like washing machines or blenders or something new.
"You can envision these personal products that people haven't defined yet," said Paul Breedlove, systems engineering manager in the PC division of Texas Instruments Inc.
Another chip, called a digital signal processor, is also growing in importance. DSPs are responsible for functions like processing sounds, driving modems and making hard drives spin.
Earlier this summer, DSP makers agreed on a standard to allow software designers to write programs without regard for the design peculiarities of the chips. That means the functions of modems, sound cards and other accessories can move together and some day may make it onto a computer's main circuitry.
"You'll see some DSPs on `motherboards,"' said Dale Walsh, vice president for advanced development of U.S. Robotics Inc., a modem manufacturer. "I would envision for awhile it will be multiple function plug-in boards, modems that embrace a lot of other functions like voice and video."
The basic software that runs a PC is also taking on more of the features that have required consumers to make extra software purchases. For instance, IBM's OS-2 has spreadsheet, planner and database software built in. And the update of Microsoft Corp.'s Windows due next spring will have electronic mail and screen savers.
"As people become more educated about software and hardware, the things that are standard change and improve," said Brad Chase, general manager of personal operating systems at Microsoft. "Several years ago, when you bought a word processor, you bought a separate spelling checker. Now every word processor has a spelling checker."
The update to Windows is particularly significant because it is the base program most used by PC owners and hasn't been changed since 1991. Its impact on the masses may not be felt for at least a year and maybe more, depending on glitches in the new product.
PLUG AND PLAY
As the PC becomes much more of a "solid state" device, like a toaster or stereo, manufacturers are working out standards so accessories can just plug in without the hassle of programming new specifications.
For example, a portable computer, using infrared sensors like those of a TV remote control, will automatically configure itself to work with a similarly equipped printer wherever a person takes it.
In two years, these so-called "plug and play" or "play at will" efforts will be far enough along to eliminate much of the extra programming a person must do.
"As a general rule, our goal is to make it as easy to use as it is to toast your bagel," Microsoft's Chase said. '
PCs will be sold in more places. More software will come from CD-ROM catalogs and modem-accessed networks. Better speakers have started coming from stereo designers and monitors will approach the vaunted level of high-definition TV.
The PCs themselves will have more colors and shapes.
Already, IBM has made black instead of beige the standard color for its portable ThinkPads and created matching monitors and keyboards. Kidboard Inc. of Edina, Minn. has created a keyboard in the shape of a smiling face for children, and Packard Bell Inc. is selling desktop PCs with removable earth-toned accent panels.
Home PC's Schwartz learned how much attention people pay to appearance when he found none of his friends was taking his advice about what PC to buy.
The reason: "They said it looked clunky."