by December 3, 2000 0 comments

For ages now, the PC has been more a matter of performance
than style. A colorless, shapeless box that nevertheless changed the world!
While there were attempts to give a more unique styling to the PC, all retained
the PC’s boxy look and did not really catch the fancy of users till the iMac
came along and proved that style can sell.

With nothing much to differentiate between competing brands,
the success of the iMac acted as a clarion call to other PC vendors to evolve
more stylish machines.

Even then, it took the big names quite some time to come up
with workable alternatives to the all-pervasive beige box. In this piece, we
will see how changes in technologies are bringing about these changes, and what
changes are in turn being wrought to the basic philosophy of the PC in the
bargain.

First, the philosophy bit.

The original PC, as designed by IBM, followed an open
architecture. That is, the design allowed for others to improve the basic
functionality of the machine by adding their own components and peripherals. It
is this that led to the boxy look of the PC. After all, the PC had to
accommodate add-on cards (ISA, EISA, and later PCI cards) that were plugged in
on the motherboard. Anyone who has opened up a PC will have noticed that if
these expansion slots were eliminated (and a slimmer power supply used), the PC
could have become a lot slimmer.

Unfortunately, there was no way of eliminating the expansion
slots, because quite a bit of the functionality that users needed of PCs
(display, sound, network connectivity, etc) depended on these cards.

And there it stayed till the technology itself changed.

Earlier, the user base was small and manufacturers were not
sure whether users would want to have extra cards like SCSI cards. Today, the PC
has become a mass-market productivity tool, much like a TV or a calculator. And
there are enough people out there who will not put any additional hardware
inside the machine they buy.

Also, over the last couple of years, more and more of the
functionality provided by add-on cards have been built into the motherboard
itself. Sound, video, modems, networking… all of these are today built onto
the motherboard itself.

It is this combination of factors that Apple exploited to
create the iMac. Here was a machine that nobody could ever expand (but for RAM)
even if their lives depended on it. But it looked different. It looked classy.
And it sold millions.

It took some time for the rest of the industry to catch on.
It is the Intel 810 chipset that built acceptable video and sound onto the
motherboard in a large scale. Finally, everything that was required of a
full-fledged PC could be placed on the motherboard, and there was no need to
leave room for add-on cards.

Finally, the PC was ready for a less boxy, classier
appearance.

Krishna Kumar

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