Surface: Companion device or PC replacement?

Summary:Yes, tablets are outselling PCs. And yes, Microsoft's tablets run Windows. But could the Surface serve as a full-fledged PC replacement?

Zack Whittaker

Zack Whittaker

Surface to rule

or

PCs aren't dead

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

25%
75%

Audience Favored: PCs aren't dead (75%)

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

PCs will sink below the Surface

Regardless of the tablet that you own (or want to own), Microsoft's own branded tablet has more than just an 'iPad competitor' sticker slapped on its back casing. The Surface is the post-PC personification of what Microsoft sees as the future of computing. Microsoft, the world's largest provider of PC software, is saying that its tablet is the future PC, and therefore tablets as a whole are 'the new PC'.

While Microsoft is a little behind the curve on the post-PC development cycle, partially because Windows 8 was late to the game -- by almost two years -- the tablet, smartphone and 'phablet' (part-phone, part tablet) phase is upon us and it's going nowhere any time soon. Windows remains in the world's most used operating system (by a long stretch, in spite of Apple's iOS). Ergo, with these two mushed together, it's a winning formula. Microsoft is making it clear that its Surface tablet will eventually replace the traditional hardware box.

Tablets aren't there yet

With the release of Windows 8 Microsoft took the bold move of encroaching into territory previously controlled by its hardware partners and release it's own tablet -- the Surface. Given that these tablets run Windows it is normal for people to assume that they are ready to replace the PC. After all, PC sales are stagnating, and instead customers -- consumers and enterprise alike -- are choosing instead to spend their dollars on tablets.

But the simple fact that tablets are outselling PC doesn't make them replacements to the desktop and notebooks. On the contrary, there are numerous obstacles that need to be conquered before tablets -- and specifically Surface tablets -- are ready to move from being companion devices to fully-fledged PC. Surface hardware is not yet powerful enough to take on the heavier duty tasks that people use PCs for, and the operating system and apps need to mature for longer before they are are ready to take on their full-sized counterparts.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Checking in

    Are you ready?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Tap. tap

    This things on - two Brits and an American

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for Surface to rule

    Good luck

    You'll need it.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for PCs aren't dead

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Making PCs relevant

    If today's PC needs replacing, it's fundamentally flawed somehow. What's wrong with it?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    The end is near

    The PC as we know it is on its last legs. Its hair is falling out, it's forgetting things, and its post-PC children are asking it to change the will. Things are not looking good. PC sales have declined massively over the past year. Apple is now selling moreMacs per quarter than any other 'traditional' PC manufacturer is shipping PCs.

    But it's not that the PC is flawed. The PC, after all, has lasted across three decades thus far. It was a clunky heap of desktop boxes and monitors, which transformed into a flip-open notebook design. Now it's a tablet. But as with any fad -- no matter how long term it is -- once something better comes along, a younger, shinier model ultimately (and nearly always) replaces whatever sufficed for that period of time. This is the computing industry's mid-life crisis. And you know what? That's quite OK.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for Surface to rule

    It's still evolving

    It isn't so much that today's PC is flawed, it is more a case of evolution has given rise to more specialized devices.

    The modern PC is still firmly rooted in old thinking. A desktop or notebook of today is not that much different to an IBM 5150 desktop from 1981 or an IBM ThinkPad 700 notebook -- or laptops as they were known then -- from 1992. Sure, the modern incarnations are vastly more powerful, and have storage and connectivity that we couldn't have dreamt of back then, but the principals behind devices are the same. The desktop is -- as it has always been -- an individual workstation, while the notebook compromises on power and storage in order to add portability. Even modern all-in-one systems are essentially a beige box system stuffed into a flat panel. Innovation has taken these devices to the end of the line, and all hardware OEMs are left with is to tinker with the basic idea.

    Just as mainframes gave way to desktops, it is now time for desktops to move aside and make way for more personal, individual devices.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for PCs aren't dead

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Feature or improvement?

    How does a mobile device, then, solve that problem? Is it merely a feature tradeoff, or a net improvement?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Power hungry

    By definition, a notebook can be a mobile device. For the sake of argument, let's limit it to the smartphone and tablet -- so-called 'post-PC' devices. A mobile device doesn't just offer one the ability to hold the device in one hand, or offer touch-screen functionality. The wider ecosystem has opened up and is available for development: the cloud, and mobile data infrastructure, such as 4G LTE.

    Thanks to low-power chips and the ability to pack as much power in a Surface as a traditional PC no more than a year or two ago, the two are beginning to -- and rapidly -- converging on each other. A Surface, for instance, is ideal for what it does thanks to the ecosystem of Windows RT running the ARM-powered Surface, but some elements are holding it back. Solid-state storage, for example, still remains vastly more expensive than a traditional hard drive. That's where the cloud comes in.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for Surface to rule

    Leading the technology revolution

    Mobile devices offer users a new way of working because they leverage technologies that we couldn't have dreamt of when the PC came into existence. The touchscreen, which is the input device of choice for mobile devices, kicks the keyboard and mouse to the curb and offers a more natural and intuitive way of interacting with out devices. Wi-Fi and cellular does away with a need for wired connections to networks, while modern batteries offer the possibility of working a whole day on a single charge.

    Even the tradeoffs that used to have to factor in when using mobile devices are fading. Once, having to turn to a notebook meant having to sacrifice power and storage for portability, but now, thanks to Moore's law, we hardly notice the difference any more. CPUs are now so powerful that the difference between desktop and mobile silicon only becomes an issue when doing really heavy work -- such as video editing or gaming -- and as flash storage densities have increased, there's been a corresponding drop in price allowing us to have gigabytes of storage for a few dollars.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for PCs aren't dead

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Making the grade

    Are today's mobile devices up to the task, from a hardware and software perspective?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Undecided

    Yes and no. Compared to a traditional PC, the Surface (and the iPad, naturally compared to a Mac) does not even come close to offering the same storage capacity, memory capability and processing speeds as say, a souped-up desktop computer designed for gaming -- at least for the price. (You probably could match a gaming PC with tablet specifications, but the cost would be proportionally more than the whole PC.)

    But tablets and smartphones have adapted to be able to do just as much, if not in some cases more than a traditional desktop PC (or Mac). There is almost nothing that a post-PC device can do that a desktop machine cannot do. The mobile ecosystem has evolved far quicker than the desktop PC market has, which is stagnating and failing to innovate. It's why tablets, in particular, are so popular at the moment.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for Surface to rule

    Demands are actually decreasing

    There's been an interesting trend in technology that, to me, seems obvious but which seems to come as a surprise to some people when pointed out to them. Just as performance and storage capabilities have followed Moore's law slavishly, the demands that we place on our devices has actually decreased as we move away from computing on local devices and rely more and more on remote server, the Web, and cloud computing.

    While some users -- those who work with multimedia, those who do heavy number crunching, gamers, and so on -- still need the power and performance offered by a modern PC, most of us do not. Take Web-based services such as Facebook, Twitter, or Google Mail. These don't look any difference, act any different, or work appreciably faster whether viewed on a top-spec 6-core system or a 5-year-old budget system.

    For the average user, performance is no longer a big deal.

    As we've moved the heavy lifting away from local devices and into the cloud and onto remote servers, we need less power locally, and, along with the widespread availability of Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity, has made the power offered desktop irrelevant

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for PCs aren't dead

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Devices for every need

    Perhaps we're looking at this in too binary a fashion. Can't we have multiple devices? (Should we?) What are the use cases?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Why not

    We can have multiple devices. Sure, why not? The problem is that in most cases it falls down to the hardware-software ecosystem. You can have iPads and Surface tablets. They won't talk to each other, you can't share data between them, and they run entirely different platforms forcing enterprise developers to build two separate apps for two separate devices. For now, we can have multiple devices, but only if they talk to each other.

    However, the PC isn't going anywhere any time soon -- at least for the next few years. We still need keyboards to type with. Ergonomics aren't going to die off any time soon; we need input devices and no matter how cool and well designed iPads and Surfaces are, they're a nightmare to touch-type on.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for Surface to rule

    We can, but why?

    History shows that there's a pressure on devices to converge. Look at how a myriad of devices, such as the GPS receiver, camera, PDA, voice recorder, have coalesced into the smartphone or tablet. While this has still left room in the market for standalone devices, for the majority of users the camera or GPS receiver packed into their phone is more than good enough.

    People have a finite carrying capacity -- not to mention money -- so a single device is always preferable to multiple devices.

    While there will always be those people who like -- and have pockets deep enough to both pay for and carry multiple devices, for the mass market, convergence is where it is at. I'm not saying that, the sales figures do.

    The era of the PC is waning, and we're well into the post-PC era before the majority of hardware OEMs even realized.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for PCs aren't dead

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Keeping track

    What are the drawbacks of a multi-device existence? Does the cloud help smooth the wrinkles?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Heading into the clouds

    As I said, there are some problems with different platforms communicating with one another. The cloud is great (if you take the legal issues out of the equation) but the cloud isn't standardized. Microsoft's cloud won't talk to Apple's cloud, ergo you can upload something to your SkyDrive and it won't download to your iCloud. It comes down to cloud gateways: the app that sits on your device that allows you to access your cloud from another provider. Sure, you can download SkyDrive for your iPad, but don't expect Apple to do the same any time soon.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for Surface to rule

    The best of all worlds

    The biggest drawback is synchronizing data across all the devices. Power users are happy juggling multiple devices, and we both have put systems in place that allow us to work seamlessly whether we are in front of a tablet, a smartphone, a notebook, or a desktop. We know the strengths and weaknesses of each of the platforms and are happy to work with them in order to get the benefits of each of the devices.

    But this method of working isn't for everyone.

    Switching between multiple devices raises a whole raft of issues for both home and enterprise users. One of the biggest issues is keeping track of what data is stored where. Just moving a single document from an iPad to a notebook or desktop can tax some people's tech skills to almost the breaking point, and almost all the methods involve resorting to a third-party service, which may or may not be acceptable -- depending on the field you're working in.

    So yes, the cloud helps, but at the same time it adds a whole layer of confusion and hassle for people.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for PCs aren't dead

  • Great Debate Moderator

    One device fits all?

    In an age where technology touches everything, is it really reasonable to think that a single device can and should do everything?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    No, one device can't do everything

    Well, my tablet isn't going to run the bath, feed the kids, or take the dog for a walk. Of course, a single device can't do everything, but within the realms of 'technologically' everything, it's not much to ask for a device that can do the vast majority of tasks -- or at very least, keep the door open for third-party developers who wish to add functionality and services to one's devices through an application store?

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for Surface to rule

    Absolutely not

    There will always be room for specialized devices. Digital SLRs, games consoles, in-car GPS receivers, and ebook readers are all examples of specialized devices that have broken into the mass market. I'm certain that millions of such devices will be wrapped and under trees all across the U.S. this holiday season.

    But increasingly these markets are going to feel the pinch from convergence devices. Why buy a camera or a GPS receiver when you have one on your cellphone? The power of the iPhone and iPad isn't that Apple put a camera or a GPS receiver into a phone, it is that Apple made it easy to use. Not only are these devices easy to use, but they're also integrated with other apps and services so that people can take a photo and share it with friends quickly and easily -- try doing that with a $3,000 digital SLR!

    Another benefit to the end user of putting a camera and GPS receiver and so on into a phone is that when they upgrade then handset, they get a whole new camera/GPS/whatever. That is a very attractive proposition to many.

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for PCs aren't dead

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Moot question?

    Is the last question, "Can a single device can and should do everything?" really moot?

    Not to debunk our own debate, but could this question really depend on the individual? One man's "companion device" is another user's primary PC.

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Look to future needs

    You're right, this is a moot point. However, this looks ahead to what we can (and should) expect in the years to come. The tablet and smartphone revolution is upon us and we are seeing a consistent trend of the number of post-PC users rising in not only the consumer space, but also the enterprise space thanks to bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies.

    The interesting thing here is that it doesn't just fall down to the individual. It boils down to the enterprise. Do they allow employees to BYOD? Are they embracing the post-PCdevices (and do they need to)? Or will the PC suffice for now, and there's "no need to deal with all these newfangled devices at cost to our IT budget," says the person in charge of the IT budget?

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for Surface to rule

    Nothing's stagnant

    The question might be moot if the PC industry wasn't stagnant. The issue here isn't so much one of killing off the PC in favor of a different device, but one of people buying fewer PCs. The industry -- certainly the PC OEMs -- doesn't want people buying fewer PCs for sure, and Microsoft's bottom line continues to be tied to the PC.

    While I have no doubt that the PC has a long life ahead of it, I'm also certain that its day of pulling in big bucks for companies are drawing to a close. PCs aren't sexy since people stopped caring about fast their processor ran, and how much storage the hard disk had. The PC hasn't just become mainstream, it's become boring, and people only replace them when the old one is dead. Sure, they probably don't want to be without a PC, but the days of buying one because they want to brag are long gone (unless you're a gamer that likes to post PC stats at the end of every forum post, but you don't count).

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for PCs aren't dead

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Two final questions

    How many devices do you fit into your bag today?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Three's company

    That I can count, three. My MacBook Air, my BlackBerry and my iPod touch -- just in case I'm sitting on a train for an hour and want to catch up on the latest episode of The West Wing.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for Surface to rule

    I take the easy route

    Usually, I carry my iPhone, an iPad, and a portable power pack to keep then juiced during the day and I can get just as much work done as if I was carrying a notebook about. Sometimes I throw in my old Kindle ebook reader because I like the screen. All this takes about a quarter of the space and weight of my notebook.

    In fact, I tell a lie, I can get more done in a day when I'm mobile.

    The last time I took my notebook with me on a trip I got less work done because I spent too much time futzing about with chargers and dongles, and once I did get connected the first thing I was presented with was a bunch of Windows updates that needed downloading and installing.

    I keep toying with the idea of buying a MacBook, but I've never actually pulled the trigger, and I hope Santa will bring me one if those nice paperwhite Kindles for Christmas. I do a lot of reading in the evening and at night, so the backlit screen would be very welcomed!

    A-Most PCs go out of this world not with a bang but a whimper. That's also what will happen to the PC industry.

    Will a companion device be there to film it? I'm not sure. When was the last time you watched a PC unboxing video on YouTube?

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for PCs aren't dead

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Last one

    If a PC fails in a forest and there's no companion device to film it, does it make a sound?

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

    Hunh?

    Hold on, why is the PC in the middle of a forest?

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for Surface to rule

    Out with a bang

    Most PCs go out of this world not with a bang but a whimper. That's also what will happen to the PC industry.

    Will a companion device be there to film it? I'm not sure. When was the last time you watched a PC unboxing video on YouTube?

    Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

    I am for PCs aren't dead

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks guys

    You both represented your country well. The final steps in this debate are conclusions Wednesday from the debaters and then Thursday I will reveal my verdict.

    Posted by Andrew Nusca

Closing Statements

More portable PCs

Zack Whittaker

Tablets are not only capable devices but in many cases they offer nearly if not all of the functionality that PCs offer, just with greater portability. For the Surface in particular, it's geared more towards the enterprise and business user, while retaining that 'fun' element for bring-your-own-device (BYOD) employees.

Whether you are an iPad fan, a Surface user, or a Nexus owner -- or any other tablet for that matter -- the vast majority of what we do on a daily basis, whether at work or at home, can be done on a tablet. However, despite my argument that the Surface (and other tablets) are good enough to replace the traditional PC, the rest of the market has yet to accept this fact. This means that while many PC-only elements are slowly making their way to tablets -- such as business, productivity, or enterprise solutions -- in many cases they're not quite there yet.

PC is still king

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes

The truth is that while Microsoft's Surface tablet is by no means ready to replace the PC, the truth is that no tablet -- not even the iPad -- is ready to take on that role. The problem isn't the form factor, or the power of the device, or even the operating system, but instead to the overall maturity of the platform. While it is easy to think that tablets are at the cutting-edge of technology, they haven't had anywhere near the time that the PC has had to be refined.

Tablet are, without a doubt, the future of the PC. I can see a day -- not that far in the future -- when a tablet will be powerful enough to double as a PC, and we'll plug it into a dock connected to a larger screen, keyboard, and mouse when we want the benefits of a desktop system. We already have tablets that can transform into notebooks, so the next logical step is to have tablets that can transform into desktop systems.

If Microsoft remains committed to Surface beyond Windows 8 -- and right now, it's hard to tell if that commitment is there -- then the Surface platform will evolve over time and could be well positioned to shape the future of tablet computing.

Five years from now, the boundaries between the tablet and the PC will have blurred to the point where there will be little or no distinction between the two, but for now the PC is still the king.

The real winner is us

Andrew Nusca

They may have fought tooth-and-nail, but these Brits are a lot closer in position than they think. Nonetheless, I declare Mr. Kingsley-Hughes the winner of this debate for making the most compelling and nuanced argument. No matter how good today's tablets can be, they're still ill-equipped to do what we do best here at ZDNet: work.

Tablets have made significant inroads in the home where computing is occasional and lightweight (except for you, telecommuters). And they're fantastic for roving executives of all stripes, whether for presentations or correspondence or monitoring. When push comes to shove, though, certain types of productivity still rule on the PC. (For example, I'd never dare to engage in interface design with a tiny tablet and my pudgy finger.) That's why we still use the PC, and that's why the term "companion device" exists in the first place.

I look forward to a time when I can do everything my work day requires on a tablet or similar -- the day when my trusty PC becomes the companion device. For a lucky few of you, that's already happened. Until cubicle emancipation truly catches on, however, the PC still rules. A desk job requires a desk tool.

But let's not forget: the real winner in this scenario is us. Between the phone, tablet and PC, we can now compute on-the-go, standing still and sitting down. All Microsoft and its peers need to worry about is being in all of the places we seek to work and play. (No pressure, guys.)

Topics: Great Debate

About

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. He is also the former editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation. He writes about business, technology and design now but used to cover finance, fashion and culture. He was an intern at Money, Men's Vogue, Popular Mechanics and the New York Daily Ne... Full Bio

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