Fifteen years ago, when I was working as a real estate developer, I would see people move into apartments and fill their living rooms with a big desktop computer, a big TV and a stereo system with giant CD racks. There was almost no room left for furniture. I thought there was an opportunity to clean up this mess, and worked with Toronto's Julia West Home to design beautiful furniture that turned your computer into an entertainment center, much like those console Hi-Fi systems from the '50s. 

Jwho Unit from Julia West Home

Photo: Julia West Home

It didn’t catch on. Flat-screen monitors were not available yet (that SGI 17-inch monitor in the photo was the first one sold and it cost $3,500) and the iPod and the laptop got rid of the big desktop and the stereo system. 

Then the smartphone came along, and I became convinced that it was going to become our default computer, writing in TreeHugger: Your office is in your pants: How the smartphone is changing the way we live and work. I made a number of predictions, including that the big-screen television was going to follow the piano to the dump.

I was wrong again. Flat-screen LED TVs got so cheap and so big that people are now wallpapering their walls with them; everybody has a home theater that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars just a few years ago. After five years of using my computer monitor for entertainment, even I broke down and bought 42 inches of fun. 

Now Intel has introduced the Compute Stick, a complete computer that runs Windows 8.1 (or Linux) that you can plug into the HDMI port of your big TV. It’s not exactly a gamer’s rig, with an Atom processor and 2GB of ram and a 32 GB solid state drive, but it's also only $149 including Windows, which retails on its own for $154.99 at my local computer store. The device connects via Bluetooth to your keyboard and mouse. No doubt the souped-up gamer’s version will follow shortly. Intel calls it “A solution with plenty of storage and performance needed for light productivity, social networking, web browsing, and streaming media, such as Netflix, Hulu, or games.” I think it's a lot more than that. 

I look at this with a mix of bemusement and astonishment. Just over a decade ago, I was building powerful computers into pretty boxes to act as entertainment centers; today I can just plug a computer that costs less than a retail box of software into my TV if I need a computer at all, which except for work I don't. Now I can spend all day on the sofa in front of the TV and nobody can complain, because the computer has ceased to be a thing. It’s now just an accessory. 

In 1977, the late Ken Olsen, CEO of minicomputer manufacturer DEC, famously said “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” He was quoted out of context, but he still had to live that down for the rest of his life. It is a shame he died in 2011, because he would have had the last laugh; he turns out to have been right. 

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Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

This stick could be the end of the personal computer as we know it
Intel's Compute Stick turns your big TV into a working Windows computer.