What do people mean when they say 'the PC is dying'?

Summary:There's been much made of 'the death of Windows' or 'the death of the PC' over the past six months, but I've started to wonder recently what people actually mean when they say 'the PC is dying'?

There are two problems with the statement "the PC is dying". The first problem is that people like their PCs, and hearing that something they have affection for is dying, or it isn't relevant, or is going away, can be inflammatory.

RIP PC
I had one of these Amstrad PCs as my first PC. Great machine. Loved it.(Computer image by Ubcule; grave image by Urutseg, public domain)

The second, bigger problem, is that when people hear this, they look at the PC that is today and has been a useful tool oftentimes for decades, and rightfully regard the statement as just being nonsensical. It's patently untrue.

The idea of waking up one morning and finding a world bereft of PCs is silly. Most people reading this couldn't do their jobs, studies, or hobbies without having access to a PC.

What is meant by "the death of the PC" is that the relevance of the PC within people's lives is being diluted by compute devices that are not PCs and the ability to use them for activities that are rewarding, yet do not require PCs. This has, in fact, been going on for a long time (eg, SMS), it's just that we've reached a tipping point over the past few years where the whole world seems to be full of smartphones and tablets, and everyone is now talking about it.

The PC is something that someone uses when they want to be productive. This productivity operates in a number of modes. For example, your employer may be paying you to be productive, you may be studying and writing a dissertation, or you may be engaging in a hobby.

In the first instance, there are people who never engage in productivity activities using a PC at all. They are not current PC customers, but they can be (and often are) current non-PC customers. Imagine a taxi driver — he or she might check Facebook on their phone when on a break, and do their accounts on paper. They never touch a PC. There's a lot of people like that.

Added to that are people who do use a PC all the time to be productive — however, the maximum possible time that a human can spend doing this as a percentage of waking hours is relatively small. And those people can, and do, use the remaining time to use non-PC devices to do non-PC things. (As well as time they spend at work checking Facebook on their phones, and so on.)

Rolled up, the time spent using non-PC devices aggregated over all of human society is a much bigger number than the aggregated time spent using a PC in traditional modes.

That implies that the non-PC/consumer market where applications are about "life" (eg, social networking, gaming, etc) will always be bigger than the PC/enterprise/business market, where applications are about "work".

Which is obviously true. There's much, much more of "life" than there is of "work".

Niche

When people talk about "the death of the PC", what they really mean is "the consumer space is going to get ever so much bigger than the enterprise space ever was".

Or, to put it another way, "the enterprise sector is going 'niche'".

The problem for Microsoft, of course, is that it doesn't want to be niche. If the technology that it's been nursing for decades suddenly looks like it's going to move from a "big" business-focused market into an "enormous" consumer-focus market, it wants to go along with the ride.

But that means it has to get the PC to expand out so that it competes with value delivered by non-PC devices.

Hence Surface, and Windows' reimagining into Windows 8, and pivoting to " devices and services ", and the Xbox. The overall strategy here is to make the PC story relevant to the consumer.

Efficiency

The PC has done well in the enterprise space, because it's provided "commercial efficiency". It allows businesses a very safe method of investing. Typically, any investment in IT returns in increased profit. (Your mileage may vary, etc.)

For people working in IT, it's hard to see why enterprise IT becoming niche matters. It's still a vast market essentially swimming in cash. (There is so much money sloshing around in enterprise IT that it's quite difficult not to make a living from it.) Sure, it's going to be very bumpy if your business is actually selling PC hardware, but most of the computer industry is services based.

The wheels of business still need to turn, and investment in IT will always be a part of that. People in IT earn good livings, especially compared to other industries.

The "death of the PC" doesn't matter within an IT services context. Projects that most of us work on rely on a business case — some thread has to be drawn from a corporate strategy down to our wage bills. Does the relative success in the market of the iPad against the Surface actually matter within that context? Nope.

Moreover, why does anyone care? The PC isn't dying — it's not going away. PC hardware is going to keep getting cheaper, the consumed software and services will keep improving just like it always has. But now everyone — whether they work in the computer industry or not — also gets these amazing smartphone and tablet, post-PC devices as well. It's like a fantastic party to which everyone's invited. What's not to like?

The PC's not dying. It's just an easier thing to say than "the PC's going niche".

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: PCs, Windows

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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