- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 17, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

It’s over, gang. Might as well pack it in. Personal computer sales are in decline, falling to an avalanche of tablet devices. There’s nothing new under the sun. “Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.”

Oh, wait, that last bit was from one of the “Star Trek” TV series.

Well, before we all quit our desktop and notebook computers for the next “new new thing,” it might be time to come back in off the window ledge. There’s plenty to keep the computer market happy, even if things will be a little different from the past, and there’s innovation on the horizon.

One week from tomorrow, on Oct. 26, Microsoft Corp. will launch Windows 8. I’ve been intrigued, if underwhelmed, by the new software, but a gigantic ad blitz and lots of “oohing” and “aahing” over touch-screen computing capabilities (where available) might well create sales, as well as marketing buzz.

Already, the computer supply “pipeline” is filling with new systems that can best process many of Win8’s new features, including the tile screens that seem a cross between Apple Inc.’s iOS icons and a smartphone interface and a desktop display that suddenly changes into a giant touchscreen, as mentioned above.

Then there’s Salt Lake City-based Xi3 Corp., which is using Kickstarter, an online “crowd-source” funding system, to build interest in its newest PCs, which it calls modular computers. About the size of a softball, the firm claims, the tiny boxes hold three system boards, allowing for easy upgrading and expansion. Hard drives are eschewed in favor of solid-state drives (i.e., lots of memory chips), and you’ll have to attach an optical drive if desired. But with a bevy of USB and other ports, the Xi3 products seem destined to change the way many people look at their systems.

Instead of the big, hulking chassis many of us have had on or under our desks, the small Xi3 boxes, attached to a giant monitor, could be a wave of the future.

Xi3 modular computers are designed from the ground up as the computers for the post-PC era,” said company founder and President Jason A. Sullivan said in a statement. “The idea of single-use PCs that have limited useful lives is not only archaic, but it’s wasteful and expensive. By contrast, the tri-board design of Xi3 modular computers makes it possible to have computers that can be regularly and easily upgraded and modified.”

Pricing of the firm’s newest models will range from $499 to $1,199 for a high-powered gaming model. But again, it’s not the cost, it’s the size that attracts this observer’s attention. More information on the products can be found at www.Xi3.com.

Also this week, Microsoft announced its “Surface” tablets starting at $499, with an add-on cover/keyboard combo costing more. Although Microsoft is offering more RAM in its tablets than comparably priced Apple iPad models, it’s still an open question whether the market will glom on. A snap-on/snap-off keyboard is nice, yes, but will there be enough applications for users?

Again, it’s the ecosystem, stupid: Will a Microsoft tablet user be able to find the same range of stuff — applications, media, content — an iPad user can? And will it work as well? Today, it’s almost a no-brainer to buy an iPad, since there are millions in use and the vast, overwhelming majority of users seem to be quite happy. Will the Microsoft tablet be a joy out of the box, or will it be bug-filled?

Oh, and if you imagine the regular iPad is just too bulky, wait until Tuesday, a few short days from now. Apple’s holding a news conference (surprise!), and the rumor mill is hot with speculation about the possibility of an “iPad mini.”

The fun, in fact, may just be starting.

Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com