Geeks vs. Sixpacks

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The other day, there was an article about Cell technology. It pretty much poo-poos the notion that PowerPC/Cell technology can ever threaten PCdom.

We, on the other hand, think it’s quite likely PCdom is going to be in for the fight of its life the second half of the decade and beyond.

Who is right?

When you look at the reasons given for Cell not being a real competitor, most of them seem to be aimed more at the Slashdot than Joe Sixpack crowd. Perhaps more importantly, Cell is being looked upon through the eyes of the PC paradigm, and there’s no sense that there can be other paradigms or standard just as or even more valid than that.

Put more simply, the author can’t really see PCs being replaced by something else, and that is precisely what this is all about. The great potential of Cell is not that it’s an improvement on the PC paradigm, but that it can break it. It at least can be a disruptive technology, precisely because (outside of Microsoft), its advocates have no vested interest in PCdom (and even Microsoft may be looking to replace Wintel with WIBM).

If you look at the main reasons given for Cell not having much of a chance, this will become clear:

The main processing core isn’t powerful enough: Cell technology is basically a modified PowerPC with a bunch of little helpers. There’s tons and tons of technical justifications for this, but that all can be summed up with this statement: “Performance in business/office applications requires a very powerful, very fast general purpose microprocessor . . . .”

Oh, really? You need one or two or ten 3Ghz processors to browse, to use Word, to write email, to do a simple spreadsheet or presentation? I don’t think so, and that’s what most business PCs are used for. It’s hardly a far-fetched flight of fancy to assume that owners of home PCs will be even less demanding than that. For the average person, if they do something, and they don’t have to wait more than a moment, it’s fast enough.

Yes, there’s video and other media, but that’s what all those SPEs are supposed to be handling.

What’s silliest about the argument, though, is that it doesn’t seem to apply to Intel. Intel has suggested that it will eventually go down the Cell path, and then suddenly, all the problems and objections go away. It’s just too tough to program for millions of Sony and Microsoft and Nintendo boxes, but when Intel says “Jump,” everyone will say, “How high?”

Sorry, but the world is bigger than Intel.

It will be hard to program: Yes, programming will get harder (and/or compilers will have to be much smarter), but as we pointed out yesterday, programming multithreads on a PC will be no picnic in the park, either. It’s the increased complexity of the task that’s the big factor in making programming harder, not the differences in hardware.

True, the greater flexibility of Cell architecture will probably make programming a bit tougher, but again, a clever compiler can do most of that work.

The architecture is too different from PCdom to easily port items from one place to another. Sorry, but this is the tail wagging the dog. The next generation of game consoles/PC wannabes are all going to run off these PowerPCs/Cells. Playstation 3/XBox 2/Nintendo Revolution. Even today, there’s a lot more gaming consoles than PCs used heavily for gaming. It’s hard to argue that PCdom is the center of the gaming universe.

While it’s not clear what the differences between these new gaming consoles will be, given their common origins, it shouldn’t be all that hard to port games or apps between these platforms.

The argument also ignores the reality that no game developer seems much perturbed providing PS2/XBox versions of games today, even though the XBox uses x86 technology.

The real problem with the argument, though, is that Cell offers the potential of allowing developers to write programs that transcend the game console/PC barrier. You can have a Cell game console, you can have a Cell PC or workstation, you can have a machine that does it all, and porting from one version to another should be rather simpler than what it is today.

PCs don’t quite fit in? So? PS3/XBox2/Nintendo (maybe Apple eventually, and after that, even AMD might join in) is certainly a big enough user base; it’s probably bigger than the PC gaming base.

PCs don’t have to rule.

There’s too much of an investment in PC software: This is probably the most powerful argument of the bunch, and it probably is quite decisive among the power bunch, but just because one argument has trumped before doesn’t mean it always will.

This argument is usually cited as a big reason why Mac marketshare has dwindled over time. No doubt some of it has to do with learning curves, but expense is probably a bigger factor.

Macdom has said to PCdom: “Spend a lot more money on a Mac, pay more to replace your PC software with Mac software, and you can be in mystical ecstacy like us.” This argument has not worked very well over the years.

Cell platforms have the potential of saying to PCdom: Spend less money on a box good enough for your PC work and your kids’ games. That’s a pretty good argument for many, but if you can add, “and be easier to use than your current big old ugly Windows box,” then you have a PC killer.

Geek vs. Sixpack

Does all this mean the PC is doomed to extinction, or at least a considerable shrivelling up?

No, not at all. There’s a million ways those backing Cell could screw this up, but the screw-ups have nothing to do with the arguments mentioned above.

The war between PCdom and Cells isn’t really between two differing sets of hardware. It’s really a war to answer the question, “Are computers meant for geeks or Sixpacks?”

Up to now, the war between Sixpacks and Geeks hasn’t really been a war, it’s been more like Christians vs. Lions. The underlying premises and goals of PCdom are geeky: more power, more features, more, more, more. They want better and better computers. On the other hand, the Sixpacks want cheap, simple and reliable (small and portable would be nice, too). They want a glorified TV set.

Up to now, the Sixpacks have been dragged along by the geeks because they didn’t have any other option.

Cell has the potential to give them that option, to disrupt the cozy little geekopoly of PCdom and force it into niches. It will succeed or fail against PCdom to the extent that it realizes that this is what the war is all about, and to the extent PCdom doesn’t. If Cells give Sixpacks what they think is a better computer, they’ll win. If they don’t, it won’t.

Yes, PCdom could do the same, but it’s like expecting a tiger to get rid of its stripes. It’s not just a computer, it’s a way of life, and to compete, PC geekdom will have to say, “To hell with our kind. Sixpacks rule!”

I don’t see them doing it anymore than they can see themselves doing it.

There will always be computer for geeks. The question is whether or not all personal computers will continue to be basically designed by and for geeks.



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