Page last updated at 14:22 GMT, Monday, 3 November 2008

Why computers are coming home

IBM Mainframe, IBM
Computers have come a long way in 50 years (IBM)

Ask the average computer user what bugs them and they will probably mutter about the speed of their broadband connection and how slow their machine can be when working hard.

It is not just computer users that moan about such things, computer makers are worried about them too.

And there's a good reason that the gripes and frustrations of the average computer consumer are shared by companies such as Intel.

It's because 80% of the computers sold with the chip maker's processors on board end up in homes or on the lap of commuters and consumers, said Sean Maloney, head of sales and marketing for Intel.

"In sheer volume terms, the big thing is that the industry is now aimed at the consumer," said Mr Maloney.

Old iron

It was not always so. As recently as the early mid-1990s most of the volume sales were to businesses. The bigger ones swapped dumb terminals and mainframes for PCs and local area networks and the smaller firms swapped typewriters and ledgers for PCs and on-screen spreadsheets.

"Business has not changed," he said, "it has just been outnumbered."

Quad core chip, Intel
Maloney: Multi-core computers will soon be the norm
It also means that the nature of computer-selling has also changed. Consumers are less and less happy with a beige box that sits out of sight under a desk in the attic or a spare bedroom.

Mr Maloney said that was partly because of a shift in who made the final decision about which machine to buy.

In recent weeks Mr Maloney has travelled the world catching up with Intel's sales partners. Many told him that women were far more likely to be making the final decision about the new computer for the home.

"The purchase decision has become an aesthetic decision," he said. Many were rejecting the black or beige boxes husbands and partners plumped for in favour of something that would not look out of place in the lounge.

To help cope with this change, Mr Maloney said PC firms were looking to the mobile phone market. The home computer industry is now where that industry was about a decade ago when phones were relatively rare and expensive.

Faster future

Ten years on and handsets are everywhere and they range in price from dirt cheap to affordable. This explosion in use means the industry is subject to the whims of fashion and the fickle and shifting tastes of what people want to do with their phones.

Car phone in 1969, Ericsson
Computers are following mobiles in being taken up by consumers
Mr Maloney said the sales and adoption numbers showed that the computer world was going the same way. It also means computer makers must adapt what they make to the broad range of things people want to do with their computer - which usually involves the internet.

To that end, he said, those desktop and laptop computers are about to undergo some significant changes.

To begin with, computers are going to sport ever more processing cores. While dual and quad core machines are becoming common today, by 2011 eight cores will be standard in the average desktop.

Alongside more cores goes a need to get data into and out of processors faster too.

The next 12 months, said Mr Maloney, will see a radical shake-up of the input/output (I/O) systems inside PCs.

"We have to get I/O speeds running a lot faster," he said. "I/O speed has not changed in a decade. It has lagged behind your CPU - that's why you are seeing your hard drive light flashing on and off so much."

Combined with this will be a broader move to solid-state hard drives that use memory chips to replace the whirring platters familiar today.

The combination could mean a boost to I/O speed of at least 100 times and perhaps much more.

The combined boost to performance sits well with what all those consumers are likely to be doing with their computers - be that choosing and cropping shots for a family calendar or processing video for a blog or YouTube.

"Anything to do with video, imagery or audio is naturally suited to multi-processing," said Mr Maloney. "It turns out that life is about multi-tasking."

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