The computer industry is in crisis but would-be survivors have to press on with research and development. Users will benefit. Di Palframan.
If the computer industry maintains its pace of development, by the turn of the century a desktop computer will pack more power than a supercomputer. It will cost, says computer-maker NCR Europe, about £15,000 compared with £25 million for the same power today.
Few doubt the ability of the industry (and the technology) to deliver more powerful and affordable machines. Despite dwindling profits and in many companies large losses, spending on research and development for those determined to remain in the computer manufacturing business is increasing.
"The computer industry is in crisis but the rate of technological change is faster than ever," insists Don Taylor, marketing director of Sun, one of the few profitable computer companies. The reason, he says, is user demand. "Users want more and more, and value for money which they didn't get 10 years ago."
But most computer users already have ample capacity in the machines on their desks. Conventional office applications, like word processing or spreadsheets, can be carried out using one tenth of the power of today's PC, says Jon Barrett, head of a research team at Digital Equipment, which has been working for five years on building computer systems more appropriate for users.
But industry is now promising to use much of the additional power to make its machines easier to use. "People should not be required to understand technology to use it," says Barrett. "You don't have to know how a microwave oven works to use it. We need to give users a richer choice of communication."
That choice will include giving commands by typing them in plain English, by touching them on the screen or by speaking them into a built-in microphone. Similarly the choice of images on the screen will not be limited to computer text and graphics but will also include photographs, animated sequences or video.
Communication between computers will also become easier. Networks will allow users to send not only computer text but documents containing computer drawings, photographs and video. "They say a picture speaks a thousand words but it is also a megabyte of data. That's a lot to send and to store," says Jeff Graham, general manager of Hewlett-Packard's worldwide office systems. The problem of storing this amount of data has already been overcome by the availability of low cost optical disks.
In the next three years Graham also believes that high speed networks will have solved the data transmission problem. By then desktop computers will come with built-in video telephones so that the sender and receiver can see each other and discuss the data.
After this, says Graham, will come worldwide wireless networks. Then there will be no need to plug the computer into a telephone line to send the data. The "nomadic" computer, as Taylor calls it, will be a reality in 1995 or 1996. He estimates it will cost around £3,000 and have the power of one costing £50,000 today. It will be used, he says, by all those people who have an insatiable desire for portable computers (variously called laptops, notebooks or palmtops), the people who want or have to work outside the office.
Much of this technology is already demonstrable but not in widespread use. It is still too expensive. When it comes packaged in a desktop or portable computer for a few thousand pounds, the question remains whether users will buy it because it is affordable or whether it will spawn a new generation of applications.
Many of them will be bought simply to replace old terminals and personal computers to do jobs that have long been computerised. If they are easy to use, then people will require less training to use them and possibly be more productive. If they are also cheap to buy and maintain, then the purchase is even more appealing.
New uses are more difficult to pinpoint. Graham sees the machines of the mid-1990s creating a "revolution" in information access. People, he says, will not only be able to access information available within their organisations but publicly-available information, such as optical disk-based encyclopedias, newspapers or television programmes - the sort of information, he argues, that gives companies "competitive advantage".
Di Palframan is a freelance writer.