How much is enough for a mainstream PC?

The Washington Post is running an interesting story on the lack of any need to upgrade many home computers, and how that's forcing PC giants like Dell, Gateway, and Apple to diversify their offerings.
They can afford to do that for a simple reason: The primary uses for home computers are still word processing, surfing the Web and writing e-mail, none of which require much in the way of hardware.

Geof Goodrum, one of the directors of the Washington Area Computer User Group, is used to dealing with power users, but he recognizes that not everybody needs a cutting-edge machine.

"I gave my mom my old 200-megahertz Pentium, and my dad's using a 200-megahertz Pentium, and they're happy with that for what they're doing," he said. "If they were doing digital video they'd need more than that, if they were gamers, 200 megahertz isn't going to cut it anymore -- but for displaying data it's certainly enough."

A 200MHz Pentium is probably a little extreme of an example, but the idea is solid, and applies to business and home PCs alike. Business machines are just as often used for word processing, surfing the web, and writing e-mail, with maybe a few spreadsheets and database applications thrown in for good measure.

Enthusiasts will always be able to cling to gaming, content creation, and multimedia editing as justification enough to upgrade, but what will drive mainstream sales in the future? Eventually, Microsoft will phase out support for OSes capable of running on low-end hardware, but those machines should still be secure in non-networked environments and they'll always be capable of running Linux.

How long will it be before a $200 Wal Mart PC is capable of doing everything the vast majority of mainstream home and business consumers want it to do? Could we be there already?

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