The future of the PC: Chrome or Fusion?

November 25, 2009: 9:00 AM ET

Will tomorrow's PC be a nimble netbook or a high-def laptop? Google and AMD recently offered opposing views.

If Google has its way, the mainstream PC of the future will be a lot simpler than the one you're using right now.

Like a TV, it will turn on almost instantly instead of taking nearly a minute to boot up. It will do everything through a web browser, pulling down most programs and data from the Internet. It'll make do with a low-cost processor and will carry a cheap price tag – kind of like today's stripped down netbooks, only with even fewer frills.

That's just Google's (GOOG) vision. A few miles down the road from the search giant's Silicon Valley headquarters, the folks at chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices have a very different idea.

AMD is wagering that the majority of tomorrow's shoppers will want more performance from their PCs. It is putting the finishing touches on a new chip that combines a microprocessor and a graphics core in one – a trick it hopes will attract consumers who want smooth high-def video and rich 3D gaming in a slim, low-cost package.

Who's closer to the mark?

Of course, it's too soon to tell. But before long shoppers will get to vote with their wallets.

Last week Google engineers showed off an early version of their browser-based Chrome operating system, what they call "a better model for personal computing." (When it's broadly available, Chrome will come pre-installed on netbooks that are specifically designed to run it.) A few days earlier, AMD announced that its Fusion processors would arrive in 2011. If all goes as planned, the two technologies will be duking it out on retail shelves in a little more than a year.

The contrasting ideas from Google and AMD come at a turbulent time for the computer industry.

Sales have slowed in the global recession, pressuring the PC revenues of stalwarts like Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Dell (DELL). Hardware profit margins have also suffered as bargain shoppers shun higher-priced machines in favor of netbooks with small screens, modest horsepower and low price tags. (The exception is Apple, which has somehow managed to keep selling premium PCs in a historic recession. Go figure.)

The big question is where the industry's next stage of growth will come from. Will consumers shift their dollars toward wireless computing devices that resemble Amazon (AMZN) Kindles, Apple (AAPL) iPhones and Google Chrome-powered netbooks? Or will they find reasons to keep buying full-blown computers?

Google argues the former. While Windows PCs won't go away, Google's thinkers believe a lot of folks would be happy with a simpler, more affordable computer that just gets them online. Considering how netbooks have become the hot ticket in the PC business lately, Google may have a point.

But there's also evidence that consumers aren't ready to give up our software-packed PCs anytime soon. As we continue to accumulate gadgets like Flip video cameras and iPhones, we'll need more powerful computers to manage the digital content – something a basic Chrome OS device won't be able to do.

Brisk sales of Windows 7 and Apple's (AAPL) Snow Leopard operating system also prove that the PC-buying public can still get excited about slick-looking operating systems that use 3D effects and animation to help users get things done. That's a welcome sign for a company like AMD, which has bet its future on the notion that the world will keep its healthy appetite for computers with some horsepower.

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