The PC is Dead, Long Live the PC

On December 20, 2005, in Computers, by psu

Pete, as usual, has generated a lot of comment traffic with his recent rantings about whether or not it is the fault of the developer when a game on a PC is a crashy piece of crap. For the most part, the battle lines are drawn along the question of whether the PC as a platform is just too complicated and intractable to make an enjoyable and reliable vehicle for interactive entertainment.

The problem is that the PC is by its nature not a single platform. Every single PC is essentially its own unique platform with its own unique set of problems. This means that everything that you run on the average PC has the potential to become a crashy piece of shit, arguably through no fault of its own. What this means is that whenever one buys a game to play on a PC, it is implicit in the contract that one will also be beta-testing the driver and other system level interfaces between the game and the rest of the PC. As a result, even in products that are relatively bug free, a lot of people get crashes and other annoyances.

This may be a fact of life, and I can understand the engineering reasons that might make it a fact of life. But, one shouldn’t be deluded into thinking that it is OK. It isn’t OK. For example, I know multiple people who have had a game or the system crash while playing a certain game because of cooling problems in the PC. Why should I have to worry about the cooling architecture of the machine in order to play a game on it? I suppose some people want to engage in the meta-game of whack-a-mole to find the workable configuration on which many games do not crash. They can be my guest. I lost interest in that kind of thing around the time I graduated from high school.

Stuff should just work. If PC gaming wants to climb out of the grave that it is slowly digging for itself, it must come to terms with this issue.

But, I am not here to bury PC gaming. That’s been done in other places by other people who are probably better at it than me. I am here to bury the general purpose PC as a computing platform. I used to be skeptical of the notion that the world would be populated not by the general purpose computers of my youth, but by special purpose machines that could only do one thing and could not be upgraded or reprogrammed. What a waste, thinks the brain of the engineer when confronted by this vision. All of that hardware and I can’t even use it to write code? Why would anyone want that? Flexibility and programmability, it seemed to me, were the major leverage points that set my beloved machines apart from everything that had come before. Here was a machine that could do anything as long as you could find the right representation.

Of course, as we have all found out, flexibility is both the shining glory of the computing machine and the instrument of its downfall. We can hook the machines up on the network for instantaneous communication with others thousands of miles away. We can do the same thing and spread email worms and other pain at the same lightning speed. You can program the machine to be any kind of environment that you want, but what this means is that like PC games, what you end up with is a machine that not only never works, but will not tell you why it doesn’t work.

The Axiom of Choice states that to fight complexity, you limit flexibility. But for computers, this has never really worked. Many organizations have a vested interest in keeping the general purpose PC alive. Also, many people who buy computers are not after simple machines that work. They are after toys to tinker with, things to fix. These and other factors play into the entrenched position that the general purpose PC has in the world. I don’t think that most people who buy a computer to surf the web and look at pictures really want or need what we are selling them. But it’s all that is there.

However, this does not mean that we do not have more and more single purpose computing machines in our lives. Even though the systems used for computing have not been evolving towards a simpler future, something has happened that my past skeptical self did not notice. More and more single purpose devices in the world are really just simple computers, designed to do a single thing well and not crash all the time. Off the top of my head, here are the obvious and not so obvious ones:

1. Xbox, PS2, Gamecube
2. DVD player
3. iPod
4. My car (although my car crashes more than my iPod).
5. Tivo
6. My oven (horrible user interface)
7. My TV. Probably more raw image processing power here than in the game consoles or a high end PC. Does not crash as much.
8. My cell phone.
9. GPS
10. The cash register at the Giant Eagle. Well, OK, these actually run Windows, but I bet you can’t install software on them.

I also find that while my general purpose computers are as complex as ever, one way that I try to tame that complexity is by limiting what I do with them to a variety of narrowly targeted tasks. So, the iMac does nothing but run iTunes. My office machine is only used to write code, send email, and edit specifications. My laptop is mostly for photo processing, writing, and web surfing. And so on. This limits what I install on the machines and thus limits the complexity of the configurations.

It seems obvious to me that the next natural step should be to continue to simplify the general purpose computer to make them easier to use and easier to set up. An obvious place to be doing this is in extending the Tivo idea to the “living room computer” or “media center PC”. Of course, since engineers and PC manufacturers are building these machines, this is not what happens. Instead what we end up with is machines that are very flexible, but hard to set up and hard to run. In the long term, if PC gaming is any indication, this is the wrong tradeoff. Hopefully in a few years, I’ll be writing my blog rant on a special writing machine, and then reading it back on my web surfing tablet while playing Halo 6 on my Xbox 9. Dare to dream.


11 Responses to “The PC is Dead, Long Live the PC”

  1. Will says:

    Dude… that’ll cost a bit.

    I’d rather have a buggy (but mostly fixable) general purpose, inscruitable uber-boxxen than 50 devices all costing $500. I want it all in one.

    I want one desktop computer/TV/everything the home needs, one laptop and one tiny phone/gaming device/plam pilot/address book.

    I want things organised by size (and only three of them), not job.

  2. If you don’t mind, I’d rather dare to dream of a world were proper engineering is not undercut by cost savings from the corporate side…

    Having a special purpose device for everything is extremely wasteful – something we can hardly afford in a world were resources are unequally distributed and becoming scarcer.

    And there’s no technical reason for PCs to be as bad as they are. Counterexample: The Mac. Plain works. I’m on a Apple laptop for three years now, and I had two crashes. That’s it. It’s just that they spend a lot of time making sure it works and is easy to use.

    (NB: If you don’t modify the heck out of your PC it has a much better chance of working, too. So maybe the thing to blame is our incessant need for the latest and greatest toys, no?)

  3. psu says:

    I use Macs, and I think they are great, but they are still too complicated and overpowered for what most people need.

    I will admit that my “one machine for writing and one machine for surfing and one machine for music” is not really the ideal scenario. The truth is that the form of the simpler machines will be driven by the applications that people want for them. It’s not likely that said applications will break down along the same lines as current productivity applications.

    As it is now, media applications and gaming are already starting to split off (tivo and xbox) into more effective “single application boxes”. I was just brainstorming about how this evolution might continue.

    I find it interesting that Robert brings up the fact that not tinkering with the machine helps it stay stable. The logical conclusion of this is to make the machine untinkerable. Which is exactly what I was talking about.

    When you think about it, one of the big reasons why the Apple machines stay more stable for people (although this is not universally true, I think) is because they are less tinkerable, not because Apple has some kind of engineering genius that evades Microsoft.

  4. peterb says:

    “Having a special purpose device for everything is extremely wasteful.”

    This assumes there is no intrinsic value in such special purpose devices, which I think isn’t true. If nothing else, the user interface on special purpose devices can be easy enough for anyone to use.

    When one claims that using a tivo instead of a computer as a PVR is “more expensive”, remember to factor in the emotional and time cost of tech support calls from your mom every time she wants to tape “desperate housewives” but can’t figure out how.

  5. Tim! says:

    I started coming around to this idea the day that I noticed that my PC is too slow to run the latest games at optimal quality, yet I can have enough windows open to fill two monitors worth of screen real estate and never go over 40% processor use. My general purpose machine is so good at everything except for the latest games that it’s going to be very hard for me to justify buying a new one when I can just get a new Xbox or whatever for half the price and still have a totally functional email/web/MSN/Jukebox/wordprocesor machine.

  6. CorvusE says:

    I’m still chuckling over the fact that Google has seen fit to place ads for high end gaming PCs on this post.

  7. Thomas says:

    Tim makes a really good point. I still enjoy PC games when I can, but it seems like the cost required is a little out of hand.

    I am a huge fan of multi-purpose gadgets, however, when used properly. The PocketPC, for example, is an incredibly useful digital swiss army knife.

  8. knight37 says:

    You can take away my general purpose PC when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers. I don’t want a device for email, a device for games, and a device for watching videos. If it were up to me, all my console games would have been released for my PC and I would play them all from there. The only reason I bought an Xbox and a GameCube and a Playstation 2 is because there are good games that are ONLY available on those platforms. Had they all be released on the PC, I wouldn’t need those “toys”. I also disagree that PC is that complex to set up and use. Sure, there can be some occasional compatibility issues, but it’s pretty darn rare. Since my last two PC’s I’ve only ever enountered a handful of problems and those I did encounter were due to stupid copy protection nonsense that didn’t work well with my particular hardware because it did things that are out-of-spec for a CD drive.

    I think it’s fine for people who want a simple machine that works, they can buy consoles and be happy. Those of us who expect a bit more out of a device will stick with general purpose PC’s, thank you very much.

  9. Note – I’m not advocating the general purpose machine. I see value in separating different functions.

    But it *is* a huge drain on resources, it generates extra waste, and has the potential to make life more complex. What I want are loosely coupled devices.

    There’s no reason not to share the HD between my music, my videos, my games, and my documents. There’s no reason not to share CPU time for most applications. (Except games and video encoding). There’s no reason not to share I/O.

    Separation by components, and keeping the components and their interface simple is where the future lies. (At least I believe so)

    And the technology is almost there – I can set up my entire household to communicate wirelessly, I can control most devices through a web browser, and so on.

    In other word – multiple devices are good if we can avoid unnecessary duplication. (Let me just mention power supplies here…)

  10. psu says:

    I wouldn’t mind a shared infrastructure for my multiple machines… no one has really built the right thing yet, but the wall of ipod NASD can only be a matter of time.

    I should have left my musing about this in the article. But it didn’t fit.

  11. Will says:

    knight37 is a real man; no, seriously. He talks sense.