Thursday, October 19, 2006

2007: The Year of Linux on the Desktop? (hah)

Can you hear that? It’s still faint, but you can hear it if you listen closely. It’s the sound of a million nerds clapping. Sony has been talking for months about the possible availability of a distribution of Linux for their super sore-away PS3, and now it looks like that will actually come to pass. Linus, your operating system may soon see the light of day.

Intel, Microsoft, Dell and HP Squirm

On October 17th, a company called Terra Soft circulated a press release stating that they would be releasing a distribution of Linux that will run on the hot PS3 hardware. It’s called Yellow Dog Linux, and they’re claiming compatibility for a couple of very important applications., Firefox, and Thunderbird will all run like a charm on the PS3, or so they say. What’s that? Internet, email, and your term paper. Now, Linux isn’t quite ready for prime-time yet, it’s still a little complicated for the average user. But this will change. And when it does, people will have one less reason to buy a desktop PC, and one more reason to buy a PS3.

That means a slow trend from Desktop PCs to Consoles, with Laptops the only mainstay of big OEMs like Dell and HP.

Two Sides of the Fight

This has a couple of other implications besides just Sunday-night-term-papers-on-the-ps3. The world of Desktop PCs has several things on the line here, and PC gaming hangs in the balance. There are two possible outcomes here: First, the PS3 usurps the Desktop PC and no one buys them anymore; second, balance remains and people still buy desktops. Now, with recent desktop/laptop sales figures, it’s pretty apparent that desktops are on the way out as sixpack machines. Me, you, and everyone we know are buying laptops instead of desktops. It’s already happening. In 2005, more laptops were sold than desktops in the United States for the first time. What do desktops have that are missing in laptops? Speedy video cards. You can’t play Oblivion on a 1000 dollar laptop, but you can on a 1000 dollar desktop.

Let’s recap. Desktop sales are dropping. Laptop sales are increasing. You can type up your papers on your shiny new PlayStation 3. Where does that leave Dell? It leaves Dell with lower margins across the line, and no desktop market. Where does it leave EA? Investing in Console games. Where does it leave you? Either paying an arm and a leg for a desktop PC you build yourself that consumes an ungodly amount of power (thank ATI and nVidia for that – and I’ll get into it later), or buying a PS3/360. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but don’t think for a second that Microsoft will sit on its laurels while Sony positions the PS3 as a desktop-replacement productivity powerhouse.

Now, I’m not trying to say that the desktop PC market is going to disappear all at once by summer 2007. I’m just pointing out that there is a trend forming here, and that it doesn’t bode well for the desktop market (or the PC Game).

There’s hope. It’s called ATIMD. And Intel. And nVidia come to think of it. These three entities do not want to see Consoles win this bloody war, and they’re going to do everything they can to keep in the game.

The Future of Modern Computing

You’ve no doubt hear that AMD recently acquired ATI. You may not have heard that Intel started hiring GPU (graphics processing unit) engineers, and that nVidia recently started developing a CPU. What we have here is a CPU company that now owns a GPU company, a CPU company developing GPUs, and a GPU company developing CPUs. The timeframe that matters here is 2008; that’s when this all comes together.

Desktops are dead, and the big reason is laptops. The little reason is consoles, but that’s not that important. So how do you keep the PC market alive? The only segment that still has life in the US: laptops.

Currently there are a couple of problems with gaming on laptops. The first is heat. In order to dissipate the heat that your CPU/GPU/RAM create, you have to have fans, and space. Space means big laptops, and big laptops aren’t so hot if you know what I mean. The other problem is power consumption. Currently, midrange and high-end laptops have a GPU, a CPU, and a Northbridge/Southbridge. Each one of these consumes power. With the AMD Athlon/Turion, no Northbridge is needed, so that’s an improvement. The future is going to be dealing with the CPU and GPU.

Over the course of the last year or so we’ve seen a strong push towards Dual-core processors by both Intel and AMD. Intel released their Core Duo processor for laptops in January of 2006, and tied it directly into their Centrino marketing to put two processors in every laptop. The important part is this: What if one of those cores was not a CPU, and instead was a GPU? Then we’d be eliminating a chip, dropping power consumption and heat dissipation, all the while increasing the usability of a laptop for things like games.

This means survival. That’s what AMD was thinking about when it bought ATI. That’s what Intel is thinking about when it hires experienced GPU engineers. That’s what nVidia is thinking about when it starts development on a CPU. These are all companies whose end would largely be spelt by the end of the PC Gaming market. If there’s not a new game that requires a faster CPU/GPU, why would people upgrade their computers? Furthermore, if laptops are the PC market, how do we keep the PC market alive without games for them? Where does my market go if no one buys my product?

The solution is not to make the games for the laptop; it’s to make the laptop for the games. Increase power without destroying battery life. You keep that laptop a laptop. I want a laptop that I can take to class during the day and plug into my monitor to play games on at night. Currently that does exist, but it’s big and nasty and I don’t want to pay three thousand dollars for a laptop that weighs 14 pounds. But by creating a CPU with powerful GPU elements built in, AMD and Intel can stay in the processor game and keep their margins safe from IBM. By developing a CPU/GPU, nVidia will stay alive, as opposing to falling by the wayside.

There’s even an in-between option: A CPU with minimal GPU elements that will run Windows Vista so that the real GPU in the laptop can turn off and save energy while on battery power. This is probably what we’ll see first, before the technology is in its later generations. But eventually, keep an eye out for a transition from buying a CPU and a video card to buying a CPU and a GPU for a second socket, or simply a CPU with a GPU integrated into it the processor die.

That’s the future. CPUs that have GPUs on board. It’s going to be a big fight. I like PCs more than Consoles, so you know which side I’m on.


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