Looking ahead to the PC of 2007

Iin terms of groundbreaking new features, not much to cheer about this year

PCs enjoyed a better year in 2005 than most analysts had predicted. Notebook shipments continued to accelerate, Microsoft Corp.'s Media Center PCs started to gain shelf space among receivers and DVD players in the living room, and corporations continued to upgrade as IT budgets proved firmer than anticipated.

But in terms of groundbreaking new features, there wasn't much to cheer about this year, and next year probably won't be very different. Leaps in PC technology, seen in previous advances like wireless networking, truly portable notebooks, or optical storage technology, will be hard to find in moderately priced PCs in 2006. Dual-core processors will become the norm, but companies such as Microsoft are worried about the leisurely pace at which PC application developers are converting their products to take advantage of a new parallel world.

So, with that, we look forward to 2007. By then, Microsoft will have finally (probably) released Windows Vista, the long-awaited upgrade to Windows XP. Client software developers should start churning out multithreaded 64-bit software by the boxful. And some current technologies reserved mostly for early adopters, like cellular wireless PC cards or high-definition video, will become part of every business or home PC user's lexicon.

A few notes about the PC of 2007:

Available in 2007, Vista's out of sight until 2008

Microsoft's newest operating system will be significantly scaled down from what was originally promised years ago, but will deliver significant improvements in security and graphics. Users will also find it easier to search for files or documents, according to the company.

Despite the new bells and whistles, it's probably best not to run out and be the first company to buy PCs with a new Microsoft operating system for your users, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates Inc. in Wayland, Massachusetts. Gartner Inc. issued a similar opinion earlier this year, advising users to start testing Vista next year in preparation for a 2008 rollout.

Consumers, on the other hand, will simply find Vista replacing Windows XP Home on store shelves and on Dell Inc.'s Web site, said Sam Bhavnani, senior analyst with Current Analysis Inc. in San Diego. Microsoft can exert pressure on consumer PC vendors to move quickly to Vista, while they have to tread more carefully among corporate users who have standardized on Windows XP, he said.

Vista could become more attractive for consumers and retailers as Microsoft and PC vendors push 64-bit capabilities in 2007, Bhavnani said. Even if 64-bit applications are not widely available at the start of 2007, Microsoft will push 64-bit computing as a revolutionary step in computing, and consumers will probably sign up, he said.

Roam if you want to

Verizon Wireless Inc. is aggressively courting PC users this year with PC Cards that connect to its EV-DO (evolution-data only) cellular network. Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., and Lenovo Group Ltd. are all expected to unveil PCs next year with built-in EV-DO or HSDPA (High Speed Downlink Packet Access) chips, similar to the advent of built-in Wi-Fi chips two years ago.

As cellular network speeds improve, that could also lead to more of a "thinner" client model, Kay said. Thin clients, despite years of trying, have not caught on because users like to have all their data in one place when they need it. But if users were convinced they could access networked data anywhere at any time, they might be persuaded to store more data on corporate servers, where it will stay when users leave their corporate laptops in the back seat of a taxi, he said.

Pack it up, pack it in, let me begin

Perpendicular data storage technology for hard-disk drives, which allows for much more data to be stored than currently, has been talked about for years and now it's finally starting to appear in a handful of commercial drives. In 2007, it will become mainstream in PC drives. That will push storage space in desktop drives toward the terabyte level, according to most estimates.

In removable media, the big change will be the slow transition from DVD to Blu-ray Disc or HD-DVD. This is expected to start on a few high-end machines in 2006 but it won't be until 2007 that the technology starts to penetrate the upper-end of the mass market.

Chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and stepping out over the line

Often overlooked but a vital part of the portable computing experience: expect battery life to last longer by 2007, but not dramatically. Improvements are being made in battery technology, but some of that extra power is being sucked up by more powerful processors or other components.

Commercial fuel cells, which can power a laptop all day on a squirt of methanol, might begin to trickle onto the market in 2007, said Sara Bradford, a research manager covering power supplies and batteries for Frost & Sullivan. However, they won't be widespread. As with any emerging technology, early adopters will jump first, although average users will be best served waiting until standardization issues such as distribution of refuel cartridges are worked out, she said. Regulatory clearance for fuel-cell carriage on aircraft is also required.

(Nancy Weil in Boston contributed to this report)

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.