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Friday 18 July 2003

The PC comes full circle [lurks]

Bare with me readers for I am going to take you on a rollercoaster ride through the history of personal computing. In doing so we shall arrive at the present day with an understanding of how we got there and then contrast the irony of the current trends in PC form factors with that which has gone before.
The first generally available microcomputers, like the CBM Pet were modelled on the only other computers that existed, remote terminals into main frames. They were typically integrated monitors, keyboard and computer - terminals themselves largely modelled on teletext units before computers existed.
Probably the first computers any of us owned - except for folks like Amnesia and Floyd who worked out what PCs were for last year or something - was the 8-bit computers like the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and the Vic 20.
Little keyboards that had the computer built into them. You slapped them down in front of a tele (to save money over a monitor) and often had an add-on to act as writable storage, there being some sort of cartridge for games. In effect they were games consoles that had a keyboard built into them and a few peripheral ports.
These cheap 8-bit computers co-existed in the same time frame with more expensive business and educational systems. They had already existed but things like the Apple II and the BBC Master had a low enough price that they were becoming more widespread. They also had the keyboard built-in but it slopped to a large thick back. It was so thick because it had I/O cards in it. Floppy disk controller for example (drives were still outbound) and updated graphics cards such as the 80 column card handy for serious business use.
Then came the form factor we're much more familiar with. The desktop case. That way your box with all the cards went under the monitor and they keyboard was detachable. This sort of form tended to be seen in all office and business varieties. Home users were still sticking to integrated boxes such as the updated Commodore and Spectrum machines. Rich folks had Apple IIes and BBC Masters, as did schools still because they already had a body of expertise there.
Back then, people didn't comprehend the whole Moore's Law thing. If you lashed out that much money on a computer, you were going to stick with it for a good few years.
And so it continued to the point that when the 16-bit era came along, home users were still using integrated computer/keyboard units with televisions or monitors (which at that time were basically the same thing). The Amiga and Atari machines looked similar because that was most convenient. Can you surmise this is because the bulk of usage of these systems was people that didn't have a lot of peripherals. Indeed, just adding a hard drive was a cumbersome side-car type device.
Then something really interesting happened. The IBM XT had come along as a bland low-spec business machine but margins were higher and clones were being banged out with lots of competing features. It was also easier to upgrade these systems year on year. The Amiga clung on with desktop case designs and a number of upgrades and a fanatical enthusiast following (including the common and insane practise of removing an Amiga 1200 motherboard and hacking it into a tower case. However the fact is, the thing which enabled them to be so cheaply made in the first place was holding back any real upgrades. It would need the original manufacturer to overhaul the system and they went bust. The integrated home-computer form factor had met it's doom.
The business cross-over had also served the PC platform very well. The PC was becoming a games machine in addition to the excellent business form factor (desktop with monitor). We know the history, the market exploded. Everyone had a desktop computer. The monitors sat on the fat desktop case, you had a detachable keyboard. When you upgraded, you just switched some cards, CPU, plugged extra stuff in the box and your desk stayed neat and tidy. A winning combination.
So it continued for many years with the only refinement that people tended to go for bigger monitors when the price dropped so the tower and mini tower form factor had overtaken the desktop in popularity as a minor physical reconfiguration. It also meant you could put the big box a little out of the way...
Now let's fast forward to last year. The Mini-ITX motherboard standard was introduced since all the big chipset makers had been integrating more and more bits of a PC into the same chips. The result was, the cost of a very small single board computer had fallen and the specification of these integrated parts was largely good enough. Shuttle probably can lay claim to starting the Mini-ITX revolution. The small cube design which crams a PC into a little cube.
Something else was happening, PC stuff hit the main stream, people were spending long periods at their computers. They became proud of their computers for the first time since the 16-bit enthusiast computing golden age. Suddenly it was no longer the hard core nuts at Hard OCP that wanted attractive and small computers. Mini ITX systems began to sell like hot cakes from a mass of different vendors, now basically offering the spec of a full sized tower system in the diminutive form factor.
Even full sized cases... since they were no longer a necessity, consumers are now being offered very attractive cases rolling out of the factory with windows in the side, neon lighting and various types of LCD and LED displays on the front panel. All without taking up a dremel and ordering some neon strips from the US!
Even those that care not so much for the appearance of their machines were asking why they needed a large beige box on their desk. Beyond mini-ITX systems, the cutting edge systems starting to filter out into retail today are the ultra-compact PCs. Computers like the Pelham Sloane PS1500 which has a tiny integrated PC built into a little box on the back of a TFT panel.
This though is integration for the sake of it to a large degree and one does sacrefice a good deal of specification and gains a lot of cost just to get shot of a small (mini-ITX, say) machine.
Then there's something new. I said earlier my history lesson was intended to make current developments seem deeply ironic given the passage of events passed. Now is that time. I present to you the Zero-Footprint PC. Remarkable isn't it. It's also surprising good value, upgradable with standard parts and this is just the first machine to return to the 8-bit form factor roots. I wonder if this isn't just the beginning.


  1. Cool blog.. Be handy if the links automatcally opened in a new window!
    Ohh, and i had a zx spectrum 128k+ so ner! and it had the gun with it so ner ner :o)That zero Foot print thingy...init just like a lappy without the screen attached?

  2. Nah, it's a good deal thicker and heavier. It uses desktop components, 3.5' HD, PCI slot etc. It's of little interest to us folks that want ninja graphics but perfectly good for many people and as a concept I think it would work well and do well in pc retail shops.

  3. I think the reason we've had an onset of smaller and more integrated chipsets + PCs in the last year or two is down to our CPUs rapidly outpacing software requirements.
    It's possible to buy a machine that's not top of the line, heck not even run of the mill, and it will still run the latest consumer, office and gaming products like the wind. No lockups, no waits, no jerkiness...
    This has meant it's financially feasible to produce hardware that doesn't use cutting edge components which have several advantages:1] They are often smaller than, or can be miniaturised from, cutting edge components due to hit issues, design refinements etc.2] Yesterdays chips are much less than half the price of todays chips.3] The integrated designs take quite some time to get to market, but when you can happily use a system with 12 or 24 month old chips, that's irrelevant.
    If the software producers get off their collective arses and start to produce software which really pushes the limits of the machines, mini form factor PCs will become less attractive once more.

  4. I think you've missed a significant stage in development; the imac. For me, this was the first time anyone really gave a shit about how their computers really looked. Computers looked pretty shit until the imac came along. All of a sudden they were on every fucking tv show and sat in a million reception desks just to look nice. PC manufacturers noticed that if a machine as deeply shit as a mac can sell in purdy box and did summit about it.
    Also, there's no way I'd introduce that zero-footprint pc into an office. I dump at least a keyboard a week from coffee/coke accidents, be a bit expensive to dump the entire pc!

  5. Slim makes a fair point, I think. Although presumably the phyical keyboard would be replacable in a laptop stylee. Got a pricelist off of them, looks surprisingly reasonable, actually. About the only serious limitation I can see is the fact that it can't mount standard 5.25' CD drives. Also, they charge and extra £100 to upgrade to a CDRW/DVD combi. Hmm.

  6. I'm really not sure how someone making web browsers, spreadsheets and word processors is to push using more hardware than they do at present. The only reason that games don't push the barriers more than they do is because the vast bulk of their audience is still running stinky old hardware.
    I think that previous macs predate the iMac in terms of people wanting them to look cool. Apple were always ahead of the curve there and for good reason, they were used in non-techy creative environments that cared about aesthetics more than function.
    PC manufacturers didn't pick up on the iMac and duplicate it at all. Far from it, they picked up on HardOCP and the Shuttle cube. Neither of which looks anything like an iMac and PC manufacturers are still not making PCs that look like an iMac.
    Valid point on the whole coffee keyboard thing. If I was making one of these, I'd just have a liquid guard underneath and some drainage holes. It might actually have, I don't know. I think I'll ask them :)
    Yeah it's based on slim line drives and you're going to pay for that. Not like any of us would buy it but it's cute all the same. Stuff we might buy would be various nifty micro-ITX cases knocking about. You can even get one that looks like a PS2 :)

  7. I'd disagree (surprise!), mac did the whole shuttle stuff first with the G4 cube thing. Everyone went 'WOW THAT LOOKS ACE' and then made ones like it that actually worked and stuff. Previous macs did look good, but they still looked techie. The imac didn't, it looked cut and trendy. It made it onto desks of TV shows and stuff, and I think that influenced things in the 'sexay case' market.

  8. wow, that would be wizard in the kitchen or for the kids.

  9. The classic Mac looked fucking awesome when it came out. Everyone went wow. Only with the fullness of time can you belittle that which has gone before. You still seem to have ignored the fact that PCs still aren't trying to look like Macs, they're trying to look like the HardOCP forum.
    Mac folks want simple elegant boxes with rounded corners. PC folks want boxes with loads of lights, windows and buttons. Macs aren't trying to get into the HiFi system, PCs are.
    It's just fundamentally incorrect to say that everyone went wow that looks ace. They didn't. It was a very gradual process lead by a few folks trying it first and everyone else seeing how much coverage these new compact and attractive cases were getting. The PC had head down a large part of that route before the Mac as well - Alienware has been trading a number of years. I subscribed to Maximum PC (actually before, when it was called Boot) from the US and that had amazing looking PCs cases in it all the time - I remember one that looked like a red-version of Orac, I wanted it so bad. That was years ago.
    The shift to attractive and compact PCs isn't just because people find they look good. It's because a different audience is now using PCs, your average consumer.

  10. All I'm saying is the imac (and the ill fated cube) was the first time I'd seen computers come out of studies and bedrooms and been allowed into living rooms. I know there was fabby cases and stuff around for the pc at the same time, but it felt to me like the imac opened more peoples eyes to the 'computers don't have to be beige' thing.

  11. Wow! This is a really long blog!

  12. Macs are poo (see other blog) but it makes me cringe when I see PC vendors efforts to make PCs look 'nice'. It just doesn't make sense why PC manufacturers haven't bother applying any 'nice' design ideas to PCs, business or leisure.
    Dell lead the way in PC-land by making them... black... wowowwowow. That taught HP a lesson, by jimminy!
    If Dell/HP&Compaq spent some money on industrial design and made some nice looking (sic.) PCs then your corporate purchasing office would buy them in spades, fuck the price breaks, specifications etc. They just want to look gud!

  13. You're on crack! When was the last time you looked at a PC then? Here's some for starters; Alienware, I-Will, Shuttle, MSI and Soltek. Christ even large cases, everyone is in on the act. The most famous mobo making is even making ones that look like PS2s or why not have one with no box at all and even your mainstream retailers have superb looking compact PCs now.
    Sure Dell and HP/Compaq make boring looking PCs but they're selling them to business. If you're saying corporations suddenly buy more PCs because they look better then I think your dealer is cutting your gear with something nasty matey. :)

  14. Alienware et al, are all selling to the hobbyist market not the average consumer, as the above blog was all about.
    My experiences with our corporate purchasing office is that when it comes to bi-annual PC supplier tendering process they always go for the prettiest one. Fortunately, they do take IT's advice but talking to other universities in the North East they don't have as much sway. I honestly think some purchasing managers pick the first supplier that sends them a nice calendar.

  15. They're selling themselves short. I won't buy fuckall without a good lunch and a decent bottle of wine :)

  16. and that includes a bag of crisps... ya big fat lush.