Switched On: Pondering PC 3.0

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

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The Xbox 360 is already considered by some to be the best product that Microsoft has ever produced. That's not surprising as it's been among the few where the software giant has controlled "the whole widget" -- choosing the processor, designing the hardware, and developing not only the operating system and user interface, but a host of licensing standards, services and infrastructure supporting Xbox Live.

In short, with the Xbox 360, Microsoft has proven that it can play the architect, succeeding at the vertical integration game that Apple has traditionally nailed with the Macintosh and iPod. Microsoft hasn't reached market share dominance with the Xbox 360 as Apple has with the iPod, but on the other hand the Mac market – while profitable for Apple -- still has a small share of the PC marketplace despite its integration advantages.

If Microsoft can succeed at producing its own videogame hardware and is widely rumored to be working on its own branded portable media player, could it succeed at, say, its own PC hardware -- that is, going beyond the keyboards and mice that it sells very successfully today? To do so, Microsoft would have to produce a personal computer that broke with today's GUI conventions and Windows application compatibility.

If, to oversimplify, the PC was the productivity computer and the Mac was the creativity computer, PC 3.0 could be the social computer. Microsoft has come a long way since it last disastrously tried to remake the PC user experience with Bob. Technologies such as electronic ink, 3D controllers, flexible displays, voice recognition and solid-state mass storage are rapidly approaching mass market commercialization price points. Could these be combined to bring us closer to the kind of natural, predictive experience of Apple's nearly decade-old Knowledge Navigator video than its 22 year-old Macintosh? Or could it bring forth an entirely new interaction paradigm?

It's not too late for PC 3.0. Nowadays, with Apple investing heavily in the high-flying Mac OS, it's strange to think that the company's flagship computer would be vulnerable. But little over ten years ago, Steve Jobs was quoted in Fortune as saying. "If I were running Apple, I would milk the Macintosh for all it's worth - and then get busy on the next great thing."

Jobs apparently reconsidered after he returned to Apple's helm, but Mac OS X brought forward most of the core UI conventions of the original Mac OS, partly in order to allow longtime Mac and cross-platform developers a way to bring their wares to it. A fresh start wouldn't be beholden to such legacy applications, and probably wouldn't be suited to them anyway.

PC 3.0 would not have to be positioned as a successor to Windows; it could coexist in a profitable niche, an even smaller version of what Apple has carved out of the PC industry. However, technology could also trickle down from the new platform to Windows, somewhat as they did briefly from the Mac to the Apple IIGS.

Next week's column will discuss a number of reasons why Microsoft would want to try this counterintuitive move.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at