Did the “PC” Really Die?

Screenshot of Windows 1.0

Early in February, consumer electronics powerhouse Sony Corp. announced to the world that it was pulling out of the personal computer business, selling off its PC brand and investments, and focusing instead on the mobile and gaming markets; the “future of computing.” This announcement predictably led to a rash of blog posts and news articles about the imminent death of the PC; but we’ve been here before. Back in 1998, The Economist published an in-depth article describing how and why the PC’s days were numbered (the rise of mobile, application specific computing, workstation-only access, early cloud models, etc.) and if I had read the article before looking at the publication date, I would have been hard pressed to distinguish it from one written last month (aside from the clearly dated jargon of course; PDA’s – does anyone use that word anymore?).

In fact, we’ve jumped on the bandwagon ourselves. We wrote in our last newsletter about the end of Windows XP – by the time you read this article, Microsoft’s retirement party for XP will already have happened – and we offered some of our insights into possible replacements for the Windows ecosystem. This month we set about writing a follow up article taking a broader look at the personal computing scene in the hopes of finding a way forward through the unknown future. In an early draft, we wrote about how operating systems got where they are today, and what we thought might come next for Windows, Linux, Unix, Mac, Chrome, and all the other contenders currently available. But, after some discussion, we realized we still weren’t thinking big enough. So we asked a deeper question, is the PC even relevant in a discussion of the future of computing?

Two sides of a coin

Answering the question, “is the PC dead,” isn’t easy. There is data pointing in both directions. On the yes side, Gartner reports that Desktop sales declined by almost 7% over the past 12 months. Even better evidence comes from the fact that Microsoft’s Windows OS declined from 75% market share to less than 60% during the same period; replaced largely by mobile devices and “other” systems. This diversification is largely what’s behind the “Windows/Microsoft/PC is dead” line of reasoning. As the argument goes, the meteoric rise of mobile devices, cloud computing, and Windows alternatives is, as Bill Gates once put it, “death by a thousand cuts” for the PC market. In many ways, this is a pretty compelling perspective; there are just a couple of problems.

The PC market isn’t all crickets, you just have to know where to look to find strong sales, even rapid growth and innovation. True, big electronics retailers are watching PC sales plummet from their high of a few years ago. Dell, Sony, Best Buy and the rest are taking a hit; and to compensate, they’re switching to more lucrative markets like tablets and smartphones; but this isn’t a complete picture of the computing market, not by a long shot. In several sub-sectors, PC sales are solid, even growing, and innovation is still strong. Gaming, in particular, is still driving PC development at a breakneck pace. Companies such as Falcon Northwest are developing custom application high-end desktop machines for an increasingly broad range of power-users from professional “game athletes” to enterprise IT executives looking for large horse power machines to run simulations and big-data transaction processing tasks. In fact, even the Federal Government is getting in on the custom PC market, buying high-powered machines for use in defense simulations and design applications where every extra gigahertz in processor speed shaves precious minutes off expensive man-hours.

Perhaps more compelling still is the fact that PC sales to developing nations like those in Central Africa and Asia are rising at incredible rates (over 30% year-over-year growth in Ethiopia, for example). Budget conscious consumers in these areas aren’t buying anything like the high-end hardware the custom US and Japanese manufactures are touting to big dollar customers. Instead, they’re driving budget PC brands like Lenovo right to price-rock-bottom; demanding fully functional desktops in the $200 range; but, they’re buying.

What does “PC” even mean?

All of this begs the question, what does “PC” even mean? In a dictionary sense, a PC is a personal computer; i.e. a device that computes things for individuals. Trite perhaps, but there is a point; aren’t smartphones really PCs too? For that matter, so are smart watches, tablets, laptops, workstations, Google glass, iPods, and even ancient “feature phones”. I know, most journalists are probably thinking of the all-in-one Desktop computer when they write about the death of the “PC;” but precise definitions are important to accurate analysis. In a broad sense, PCs haven’t gone anywhere at all; they’ve just gotten smaller and had their operating systems diversified dramatically from the all Windows days of the 1990s and early 2000s (Android, Chrome, Facebook, iOS, Mozilla, and yes, still Windows; are each viable options today). To be fair, even the biggest smartphone still can’t play World of Warcraft to good effect, nor efficiently manage a bank of 4000 server racks in real time, but neither can Lenovo’s budget computers; and no one is saying they aren’t real PCs.

Screenshot of Windows 2.0So what’s really happening?

I’d argue that the changes we are seeing aren’t really about PCs or mobile, or even wearable computers; all those terms are really just versions of the same thing, devices that bring us the data we’re looking for in our daily lives. The real breakthroughs have been much more subtle, much more pervasive, and transcend the PC/Laptop/Smartphone conversation entirely. The future is all about The Cloud. Did you know that when you enter a search into Google’s omnipresent box (or Bing’s or Yahoo’s...or talk to Siri), whether you’re on your phone, your iPad, or your Dell Desktop, the spelling corrections and search suggestions that pop up as you work are all processed on Google’s servers thousands of miles away from wherever you are? So are the voice recognition and web form spell checking services upon which most of us have come to depend. These are small things, and most people don’t really care where this processing takes place, so long as the features work, but the move has tremendous implications not only for the future of computing, but for the future of humanity itself.

It’s not just minor features like spell checking that have moved either, it’s almost everything else. Cloud computing now offers end-users almost every software feature possible from photo editing (Adobe offers cloud versions of their popular graphics applications) to high-end word processing (Microsoft Office is now in the cloud). In fact, even the computer operating system itself has been moved partly into the cloud. Google’s Chromebooks run on a system that depends almost entirely on being connected to the internet for basic functionality (I know, you can get “offline” versions of some sub-systems, but that’s missing the point entirely). Data too is moving off our local storage devices. In case you missed the news, there is a price-war afoot over online storage services. Google, Dropbox, Microsoft, and Amazon have all dramatically dropped the prices of their storage offerings to the point where it’s arguably more economically efficient to backup your data to the cloud than it is to buy an external hard drive. It’s also more secure (not counting the NSA) and more reliable (not counting changes in corporate philosophy) than anything you could string together in your home or office.

In the future...

Exactly what the future holds is always challenging to predict. I don’t think we’ll ever really be rid of the “PC”. Even in the most creative Sci-Fi movies, high-end computer interaction is still performed at a station of some kind; basically a desktop computer. Sure, it’s usually connected to everyone’s brain and works like magic, but it’s still a workstation you have to go “work” at to get certain tasks done. But, the numbers of people who will need access to workstations regularly will continue to shrink dramatically. Alternative devices will continue to crop up which will give regular users and consumers access to the data and services they need. Many of these “mobile” devices will probably soon be wearable (like Google Glass or the iWatch) or even implantable, and the range of features and services will change every few years. But this is all conjecture really. In the near term, Microsoft, the PC, and even the Desktop will continue to play major roles in the development of information technology as an industry and in computing as a feature of human development. Don’t pronounce the PC, or Windows, dead just yet...

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Kjeld Lindsted Kjeld Lindsted
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