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Intel's Concept PCs: Wintel's last stand?

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Analysis PC companies are finally starting to ship FlexATX board-based machines that deliver some of the capabilities of the "Concept PCs" Intel first unveiled over a year ago. But at Comdex this week Intel was showing a clutch of next generation "Concepts for 21st Century PCs." And jolly gruesome most of them look too. Intel operatives at the viewing on Wednesday night were keen to point out that customers these days wanted easier to use PCs and to get away from boring old box-shaped machines. The Register concurred, but suggested that in that case cool-looking hi fi units might be a better model than the ones Intel's radical designer associates are currently following. We added that it might also be useful of Microsoft could be induced to stop gluing bits onto Windows 98 and build a consumer OS instead, but this simply drew non-committal and slightly nervous smiles from Intel. The latest Concept efforts include Fiori's Attivo, a blow your socks off entertainment PC with Pentium III, ADSL, AGP4x and Rambus and DVI-compliant flat panel display. One joy of the Concept PC, er, concept is that it allows you to put this class of technology into any package you like. Fiori has gone for black and bilious lime green with a rakish backward tilt, while others have gone for silver and purple, green and shaped like a bean or orange and silver and hidden in a footstool. The most plausible-looking of them however are from manufacturers (e.g. Toshiba) who already have experience of the consumer/home electronics industry, and who're producing units that look rather more like the sort of PC you'd expect to find sitting alongside hi fi and/or home entertainment equipment. And there's a truth that dawns on you as you wander round the Intel demo room - what these garish and odd-shaped boxes have in common is that they're all still PCs. Considering they're called Concept PCs that can hardly be called a blinding flash of insight, but it throws up a clear problem; the PC-ness of the beasts fatally undermines the conceptual half of the equation. Intel has produced the base technology that will allow manufacturers to produce boxes in different shapes that are simpler to expand, but although the designers have tried to aim their designs at different categories, i.e. the teen PC, the kitchen PC, or the kid's PC, the specifications don't have much variation (Celeron cheapies for kids, everybody else gets beffy PIIIs), and they've been reduced to using packaging to signal intended use. Note also that the ease of use features Intel is pushing with the Concepts are the same features it's pushing for the whole of the market. Dump legacy hardware, use USB for expansion, eliminate cables... It's all perfectly sensible stuff, and it's all in the Intel roadmaps for everybody, not just for home users, so although the boxes may be odd shapes and colours they all comply with the PC2001 design guide, and they all remain general purpose PCs, whether they're intended for the kitchen the bedroom or the living room. You might think this implies an imagination failure on Intel's part, but that's not the case. There's the Web tablet, for example, intended to allow you to wander round your home accessing the Web and email via a local wireless hook-up. But that's going to be ARM-based, and is more of an appliance than a PC, so Intel obviously isn't going to show it alongside Concept PCs. Or there are various possible home implementations of the inBusiness units, which are intended to provide simple networking, Internet access and email for small and medium businesses. But they're appliances too. Instead, the Concept PC team is sticking to home implementations of standard PC computing models. They'll have added multimedia and added networking (digital media support and networking will be among Microsoft's contributions via Millennium), but the vision of the home of the future they project is one of lots of conventional PCs doing conventional PC things and being hooked together in a conventional PC network. How may PCs are home users going to buy anyway, even if they're only $500 a pop? This could be Wintel's last stand. Instead of thinking about how it can package existing PC models into different areas, Intel should be starting with a blank sheet of paper, working out what it is that people are going to want to do and then figuring out what components they're going to need to do it. That will inevitably throw up a host of different hardware platforms and solutions, not all of them x86 ones, and a lot of different software solutions too - many of them not Windows ones. The basic problem with the Concept PC is, effectively, that it's a prisoner of the PC concept. ®

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