(Sorry I've been so quiet this week; a seasonal cold turned into bronchitis, and I'm not entirely over it yet ...)
I've spouted off previously in this blog about my lamentable poor saving throw versus shiny! — not to mention my irritation at the refusal of the consumer electronics industry to render me bankrupt by actually giving me what I want. Trouble is, at long last they've turned around and done it.
I have in my possession an Asus Eee subnotebook. It cost me an eye-watering £220 — as the top-selling laptop on Amazon.com right now, there's a certain scarcity value attached, and they haven't yet sunk to their real price, somewhere around thruppence ha'penny. But the process is becoming clear.
Back in 1998, I bought a notebook computer: a Hewlett-Packard Omnibook 800, with trimmings. It had a 166MHz processor, 80Mb of RAM, a 4Gb hard disk, an external CDROM drive (reader, not writer), and a docking station. It was being discontinued, which is why I was able to walk out of the store with it for under £1400, rather than paying the full-whack £1900 that bundle was going for a few months earlier.
Compare with the Eee. On processor and memory the Eee wipes out the 1998-vintage high-end subnotebook, with 900MHz and 512Mb respectively. The disk space is the same, except the Eee uses solid state memory rather than a spinning mechanical thingy. The screen resolution ... the Eee has a 800x480 pixel panel to the Omnibook's 800x600, so we'll chalk that one up as a win for HP, but both machines can cope with larger external dispays. For an extra £80, I bought the Eee 8Gb of additional storage media (an SDHC card), an upgrade to 1Gb of RAM, and an external CD/DVD rewriter. You don't need any of that stuff to make the Eee useful, but it's interesting to note that with it, the Eee is considerably more capable than the 1998-era high-end HP notebook, has triple the storage, double the battery life, and weighs less (with all its accessories, including the power supply) than the Omnibook on its own.
So, let me cut to the chase. Moore's Law suggests that every component of a PC halves in price on a roughly 18-month cycle. A desktop PC today should be roughly 100 times as powerful as a desktop PC of similar price 10 years ago, and 50 times as powerful as a PC of eight and a half years hence. A naive soul with no prior experience of consumer capitalism might ask why, instead of doubling in power, the manufacturers don't concentrate on cutting prices? But that's not how the industry worked. Until now.
A couple of years ago Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab launched the idea of a $100 laptop for education in the developing world. Well, the OLPC XO-1 is now out, costs $188 in bulk (a chunk of which is attributable to the dollar collapsing in the meantime), and hasn't exactly taken the world by storm — but succeeded in sticking the proverbial cattle prod up Microsoft and Intel's collective arse. For too long, the software and CPU giants had been treating the PC market as a cash cow, with a natural floor on the price of the product; the XO-1 proved that they were overcharging grossly. Intel's reaction was the Classmate reference design, their own purported rival to the XO-1; the Asus Eee is what you get when a large far eastern OEM thinks "hang on, can we commoditize this and sell it in bulk?" Microsoft, incidentally, failed to make it onto the Eee bandwagon because they wanted $40 for a Windows XP license — on a machine that starts at $250 for the stripped-down version. Mine runs Linux perfectly well, thank you, and comes with the basic stuff you need to be productive; OpenOffice, Thunderbird for email, Firefox as a web browser, and some other gadgets (like Skype and a webcam).
The Eee isn't an order of magnitude cheaper than a normal laptop but it is close to an order of magnitude cheaper than previous ultra-lightweight subnotebooks. And I think I'm going to use it as a pointer to a future trend in the computer business, at the low end. The Eee is about 8 times as powerful as that 1998 Omnibook, at a quarter the price. That's an improvement of half an order of magnitude in one direction and close to a full order in the other. And it's a tipping point, I think, showing that the price points that have defined the goal posts for the personal computer business aren't set in stone.
The dirty little fact everybody in the consumer computer trade have been trying to ignore — Dell, HP, Microsoft, Intel, AMD, Apple, all of them — is that the computer biz is overdue for commoditization. There is no intrinsic reason why a kilogram of plastic and metal with a couple of silicon chips in it should sell for more than its weight in silver. Nor do we need ever-more-powerful personal computers; the heavy duty processing is moving off our desktop and onto servers, and has been for years, and only idiocy of the finest water (such as Microsoft's attempt to turn Vista into a surveillance state in microcosm) can justify it. Moreover, there is enough competition in this business that prices should be falling, steadily. Apple have staked out a boutique territory for themselves, and more power to them for noticing that they needed to do that in order to survive: but that's a small lifeboat, and not everyone can market themselves on being cooler than everyone else.
The Eee isn't quite the disposable computing resource I've been wanting — they'll have to shave a zero off the price tag for that — but it's close enough for now. It does the basics I need, runs portable cross-platform applications and editing open file formats, and if I leave it on a train or sit on it or something my immediate reaction will be to swear, check my backups, and buy another one, rather than to whimper and go talk to my bank manager. Which is as it should be. We've been held to ransom by these bastards for too long. The only remaining questions are, how long will it take before they wake up and realize the 30-year binge at the expense of the public is over? And how deep will be the recession that follows once the personal computing industry deflates to its natural value (i.e. peanuts)?