Dell: The PC Keeps Pumping

The company's technology chief says the desktop isn't dead yet.
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Kevin Kettler spends a lot of time thinking about what your next computer will look like. As chief technology officer at

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

, Kettler works with engineers, outside vendors and consumers to chart the direction of technology across all company products.

In the following interview with

TheStreet.com

, Kettler discusses the rising role of flash memory and virtualization in the evolution of the PC, and why he believes the desktop is not dead.

TheStreet.com: Given recent sales trends with notebooks handily outselling desktop PCs, do you foresee the desktop becoming extinct any time soon?

Kettler

: I don't see any sign of extinction any time soon. Certainly the notebook category is one that has shown the strongest growth on the client side. But that has not been at the expense or extinction of the desktop. We feel very strongly the desktop will continue to move forward and flourish, especially when you look at some of the emerging global economies that will more than likely rely on desktop-class products, because desktops still remain a value-oriented product.

Do you envision any new category of computing platform emerging alongside the notebook, desktop and handheld platforms we have today?

A number of these categories that are emerging -- whether it's tablet computing, whether it's crossover products that are kind of between a desktop and notebook, or even where you cross over a cell phone with a PDA -- these products all play roles, but when you aggregate that relative to the market segments they might address, many of those end up being targeted for specific market segments.

So, they'll play roles as we look forward, but I don't see any product category that's emerging that will displace any of the categories that we currently have as the volume leaders in the industry.

But on the server side ... today we've got towers and racks, and it's not inconceivable that towers, racks and blades will all be equivalent-size product categories at some point in the future.

PC makers have been trying to get into the living room for decades and next year will see the launch of another slew of living-room initiatives, including the debut of Intel's (INTC) - Get Report Viiv platform. Why should anyone expect this attempt to be any different?

If you looked back five years and asked, "How are things going in the convergence of consumer electronics and the PC industry?" the belief was they were extremely competitive industries and there was no way each of those industries could cross over into the other industry. As the industries began to look at what consumers were ultimately trying to do with these electronics, it became pretty clear that the desire of the industries not to work together was not in the best interest of consumers.


One of the key pieces -- the breakthroughs -- that occurred is really making these devices so they can interoperate. You have to be able to physically make these things connected somehow. That would mean that the jack on the back of your stereo would be the same as the jack on the back of your PC. Well, just because you've got the same wire doesn't mean that wire is electrically doing the same thing. So, is what we call the protocol of communication between those two jacks consistent? Once you've got that, then there's this other thing called content -- what is the format that that stuff is in?

You need all three of these things to be consistent in order for the devices to be able to actually begin to communicate and be compatible with one another.

So, when you start talking about the Viiv products and other Dell products, these products are going to allow that interoperability that we haven't seen in the past. That's a key thing that says -- back to your original question of why is this different than five years ago -- it's because we've made some basic breakthroughs on how these things can collaborate.

How is voice-over IP going to change PC product development and design?

We're optimistic voice-over IP will play a strong part going forward; it's playing a strong part in the industry right now. The unfortunate part is that voice-over IP is still very fragmented in terms of solutions that are out there, and this is again where standardization efforts

are important -- consistency around what voice-over IP is for the home vs. small business vs. corporate business, and working through what's necessary to really make that a true plug-and-play solution across many usage models.

Actually, Dell is a big voice-over-IP user, even within our corporation, so we understand and embrace the benefits of it. But it's got some maturing to do before it becomes ubiquitous.

Another trend we've seen this past year is that flash memory seems to be making strides vs. hard drives in handheld gadgets. Do you see flash ever replacing hard drives in notebook computers?

I don't see flash replacing hard drives. Flash has certainly emerged where, based on the amount of storage and the things you can do, you might see some interesting applications of flash.

I'll throw out an example: would there be a value proposition if flash was used as an intermediate cache

in a notebook PC? One thing with caches on hard drives is, what happens if suddenly your power goes off? Do you lose all the information on your cache prior to it being written on your hard drive?

Flash provides an intermediate place where you can store

your data, and it's nonvolatile, so you wouldn't lose it

when power goes out. The performance levels of flash are such that it would be higher performance retrieval than what you would have coming off the hard drive. There is a cost associated with that over what today's hard drives are, but we're evaluating whether some customers would like to see that performance boost, with the additional cost of putting that flash buffer in there.

What do you see as some of the more far-out technologies that maybe aren't even ironed out into standards yet but that will have a big impact in the upcoming years?

An interesting one for me is how does virtualization play into future trends and technologies, and I think virtualization could create a pretty big shift in usage models and what people perceive as a value through systems.

As silicon advances have moved forward,

chipmakers are beginning to integrate more and more technology in a single die. A great example of that is dual-core and multicore processors. Suddenly you've got multiple processing elements available so that you could potentially assign virtual machines to individual processing elements.

You might have what you know as your desktop today and have a second room that just is associated with what you do out on the Internet,

where people run into viruses or other things. Wouldn't it be great if you had a virtual system that touched the Internet, and anytime it got screwed up you just pressed a button and it re-initialized itself and you never jeopardized your Excel spreadsheet with your family finances or pictures of your wedding from your digital camera?

Then you can start to say, can you have a bunch of virtualized environments that might be almost appliance-like in nature? So, what if one of your virtualized environments is a very dedicated gaming environment, which is written from the ground up to give you the ultimate usage of your silicon? What if one of your environments is an environment used to provide diagnostic and service capability? It's out a few years, but I'm just trying to paint a picture of some of the things that we're working on.