PCs enjoyed a better year in 2005 than most analysts had predicted. Notebook shipments continued to accelerate, corporations continued to upgrade as IT budgets proved firmer than anticipated, and Microsoft's Media Center PCs started to gain shelf space among receivers and DVD players in the living room.
But in terms of groundbreaking new features, there wasn't much to cheer about last year, and this 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 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.
Here's what we expect for the PC of 2007:
Available in 2007, Vista's out of sight until 2008
Microsoft's newest operating system will be scaled down from what was originally promised years ago, but it 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 would probably be best not to run out and be the first company to buy PCs with a new Microsoft operating system, said Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates. Gartner issued a similar opinion last year, advising users to start testing Vista this 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's Web site, said Sam Bhavnani, an analyst at Current Analysis in San Diego. Microsoft can exert pressure on consumer PC vendors to move quickly to Vista, but it has to tread more carefully among corporate users who have standardised 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
In the US, Verizon Wireless is aggressively courting PC users with PC Cards that connect to its EV-DO (evolution-data only) cellular network. Dell, HP and Lenovo are all expected to unveil PCs this year with built-in EV-DO or HSDPA (High-Speed Downlink Packet Access) chips, in much the same way built-in Wi-Fi chips debuted several years ago.
Improvements in cellular network speeds could also lead to more of a thin-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 even if they 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 is currently possible, has been talked about for years. 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 this year, but the technology won't start to penetrate the upper end of the mass market until 2007.
Chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected, and stepping out over the line
Often overlooked but a vital part of the portable computing experience, battery life should start to increase 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, an analyst who covers power supplies and batteries at Frost & Sullivan. However, they won't be widespread. As is the case with any emerging technology, early adopters will jump first, although average users will be best served if they wait until standardisation issues such as distribution of replacement fuel cartridges are worked out, she said. Regulatory approval for carrying fuel cells on aeroplanes is also required.
Nancy Weil in Boston contributed to this report.