The so-called 'death of the PC'

The so-called 'death of the PC'

Summary: Is the PC dying? Not really. It's more to do with that users now have choice about which tools they use.

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TOPICS: PCs, Smartphones, Tablets
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Death of the PC
Death is coming. (If you're a PC.)

Last week Microsoft announced some decent numbers for their last reporting period.

Cue me getting an equally decent number of messages on Twitter along the lines of: "Ha! You say the PC is dying, but look at Microsoft's numbers!"

Quite.

Next, a quick Google for the phrase "so-called death of the PC" yields a good few dozen blog posts from my compatriots at other publications. Each of them make the argument that with good Microsoft financial results, the PC can't be dying.

Ungh. That's not really what "death of the PC" means. Let me explain...

Options

The whole phrase "death of the PC" is just a convenient hook. The PC isn't dying -- it can't die, for reasons that I'll come on to.

Instead of all this, the better way to read what is happening to the industry isn't that the Microsoft is doing badly; rather it's to look at how well all of the other guys are doing. On one hand, there are fewer PCs being sold than there used to be, and on the other hand there are more post-PC (smartphones and tablet) devices being sold than there used to be.

This is all about people -- mainly consumers, but this affects business users too -- having more choice than they used to have.

Here's a case in point:

We now know that Office 365 in the home-use market is doing rather well, having hit two million subscribers. If you need to have Office at home, and you're going to buy it, there is no better way of buying it than on subscription. That goes for small businesses too -- if you need Office, an Office 365 subscription is fantastic value and totally the best way to buy that product.

But consumers, and via the creeping unstoppability that is "consumerisation of IT", business users too now don't have to choose Office at all. They can do other things. In this case they could choose freebie Google Docs, or the equally free Office Web Apps.

It's not about "death of the PC", it's about "the birth of choice".

In the pre-post-PC era, choice came somewhat less easily. Sure, you could choose to ditch Office for OpenOffice, but oftentimes IT managers felt that to make that choice might end up ending their careers in new and innovative ways. Or, to put it another way, in the pre-post-PC era, the choice was that there was no choice.

Efficiency

Another funny thing that comes up when people talk to me about the death of the PC is the idea that people will be sitting there at their desks tapping out emails on their phones rather than using a PC. Why would anyone do that if they have a perfectly good PC sitting there?

For business use, we have as an industry spent decades making the PC unbelievably good at doing business-y things in business environments. There's no reason to ditch any of that, and I'm sure that as an industry we'll continue to make the PC better.

The PC is all about driving commercial efficiency, and it's that bit that it's good at. Post-PC devices are all about driving relationships by bringing people more smoothly into contact with the people and the things that they live.

We'll always have an economy, and as such we'll always need improvements in commercial efficiency and always need information systems to do it. From that perspective, the PC isn't dying and never will. (And if it turns out that we don't have an economy, we have bigger problems than the numbers our favourite tech firms report.)

So from that perspective, we'd expect Microsoft to do well in their enterprise markets, and they appear to be doing so. That should come as no surprise to anyone.

But this choice is not going to go away. Someone whose sole interaction with online services is chatting to friends on Snapchat, selling things on eBay, a spot of online banking, and maybe a splash of email, doesn't get the same "win" out of a PC, because a PC is designed to serve a commercial market first and not them and their needs.

Hence Microsoft's challenge to reposition itself as a devices and services company. If people are going to be choosing from Column A or Column B, it makes sense to have products in both Column A and Column B.

Conclusion

In essence, the PC cannot die in this new post-PC, choice-led market because it was never alive. Buying stuff for your hobby on eBay, posting on Facebook, playing games, etc -- because those things did nothing for commercial efficiency, and did everything for your relationships, they were post-PC functions. That you could do them on the PC at all was accidental. What you were actually doing there was trying out the services on prototype devices. The real production devices for all that are smartphones and tablets.

So the PC isn't dying. It's not going anywhere. What we need is a different phrase to sum this phase of the market up. How about "PC and post-PC? Vive la différence."

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

Topics: PCs, Smartphones, Tablets

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73 comments
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  • OMG! the same foolish article...

    Why does a great site like ZDNet insists on keep this guy hired ?
    He always come with the same foolish talk saing "The post PC era".
    Come on "Alice" PC's are not dead and they are all around the companies and even at homes.
    Eder Cardoso
    • He said the PC isn't dead, he agreed with you Eder...

      But my issue is that Gaming, recreation, and email is exactly what the PC is for... I think he has it backwards. The fact it was used in business was a starting point, but the vast number of home uses were the things that made PC valuable. The reason the PC won't die is because there will always be a market for something crazy fast, over-powered, and upgradable. Portables sacrifice performance for portability.
      Socratesfoot
      • Re: there will always be a market

        Yep, but.. who said "crazy fast, over-powered, and upgradable" has to be sitting all in a beige box under your desk?

        Look at the new Mac Pro. A product of the company that defined personal computers few decades ago. They apparently know things about personal computers that others tend to ignore.

        The new Mac Pro is all of "crazy fast, over-powered and upgradable". It just is designed so that "upgrading" it merely consists of disconnecting the cable from the old component and reconnecting it to the new component. No need for technicians, no need for special tools, no need for disassembling that dusty box. Just plug-and-play, Lego style. The way personal computers should be: appliances.

        Now, look at those mobile computing appliances from that perspective and you will see where the Personal Computer is heading. Or, has arrived at, actually.
        danbi
        • The Mac Pro is a high-end workstation (and/or, optionally, a server)

          When can we expect to see this plug-and-play upgrading capability for the iMac and Mac Mini?
          Rabid Howler Monkey
          • plug and play upgradability

            The iMac and the macMini are designed to be upgraded just like that -- by connecting various peripherals.

            For example, the macMini is very frequently used by audio professionals in all kinds of "mobile" setups (I have yet to see a successful conference not using these). In these setups the macMini is actually an "appliance" that connects to the various audio stuff, that is always external. No need for internal ISA/PCI/PCIe cards, that get obsolete pretty soon our end up without drivers. These "peripherals" are in fact the core stuff, while the "computer" is just the add-on. Similar setup exist in most other areas.

            But, perhaps you have something else in mind.
            danbi
        • External upgrades? I tried that route.

          About 6 years ago, I built a computer in a tiny case with lots of USB ports. I bought external everything and plugged them in using cables, thinking exactly what you thought. Upgrades would be a breeze. It was horrible. Buying external devices made the total cost about 15-20% higher than a tower. Also, around 3/4 of my desk was covered with external devices and their cables. I had very little workspace left. I put up with that for about 4 months before I gutted all of it and put everything inside a large tower case back under my desk. Doing that gave me space for two additional monitors and even then I still have 3x the workspace I had. Give me "one box to rule them all" any day. I'd rather spend the money on a large tower that is geared toward easy maintenance than a multitude of workspace eating devices.
          BillDem
          • It's called wiring hell...

            ... and it's exactly why I'm against the new Mac Pro.

            External everything is a step backwards, in my opinion.
            ForeverCookie
          • you can always ruin a good idea with bad implementation

            In this case, Apple's idea for high-density peripherals revolves around Thunderbolt. You can connect *anything* that normally connects to a slot in a tower to Thunderbolt. When you replace the CPU, you don't need to replace everything else as well -- just connect the new CPU to the rest of the "system".

            If for you a large noisy box is ok, that doesn't mean it is ok for everyone. Most people are ok to connect cables, but not ok to open cases etc.
            danbi
          • Who said

            the box had to be noisy.
            calfee20
        • if you feel like spending 4k on a freaking macbook pro then...

          be my guest. personallly I'd rather die
          onewarmslime
          • Re: if you feel like

            Mac Pro, not MacBook. A desktop system :)

            I will feel bad knowing you dies because of me and for no purpose.
            danbi
          • Great comment

            I had to vote you up for that one.
            calfee20
  • Glad you brought this up

    Folks who talk about the "death of the PC" rarely take into account the law of diminishing returns. The law of diminishing returns states, for this scenario, that every PC you add to your collection of PCs is worth a little less to you in utility than the previous one you bought. This is an "all things being equal" statement, and does not necessarily mean that the last PC you bought sequentially is the least valuable one. But the law of diminishing returns goes the opposite way as you start getting rid of PC's. Each PC you get rid of, replaced by some other device, is going to be the least valuable PC that you own, which means the ones you have left must have more value to you and are going to be harder for you to get rid of.

    This is definitely true in my house, where we've gone from 3 desktop computers down to 1 in the past 2 years, but we'll never get to 0. Not ever. You'll pry that last one from my cold dead fingers. I might even go back up to 2 if I replace my Surface RT with an ultrabook, which I may do unless Quicken does a Windows RT port.
    FDanconia
    • Very true.

      One could also argue that desktop PCs are highly saturated already. The vast majority of people who need one already have one. The hardware requirements of desktop software haven't changed much in the past 5 years, so there is less need to upgrade until your desktop actually fails. That's definitely a much smaller upgrade percentage than when people needed to upgrade to keep up with the rising requirements of their software. The fact that they don't need to upgrade their desktops as often has allowed all of those people to spend that extra money on personal portable devices, instead. This is what has caused the ongoing market shift.

      In the home desktop market, games used to be a big driving factor for hardware upgrades. These days, game developers are writing games for the lowest common denominator. They're designing and programming for the limitations of console machines and then porting the result to the PC. As a result, a PC that's a few years old keeps up with current games fairly well. In most cases, a video card upgrade is all you need to keep up. If the desktop manufacturers, Intel, and Microsoft want desktop PC sales to start climbing again, they should financially encourage developers to return to the days of developing games specifically for the desktop PC rather than porting mediocre console games. Desktop PC games should be more epic in scope, taking full advantage of the massive RAM, GPU, and CPU power available in desktops. In fact, require 64 bit CPUs with up to 8 GB of RAM, if necessary to create something epic. If the desktop games become incredible, people will upgrade their old desktops to play them. I'm talking things like real time strategy games where you are controlling 500+ highly detailed units spread across vast maps with sophisticated AI and continuous zoom. Take advantage of multiple monitors when people have them. Use Blu-ray for massive data storage. Leave the twitch games and shooters on the consoles and put the epic thinking man's games back on the PC desktop, where they belong. The desktop would see a resurgence if this shift were to happen.
      BillDem
      • I agree

        that software companies should be making game targeting PCs specifically, particularly "epic thinking man's games". Although my preference would be for epic adventure games (perhaps the long-awaited next Gabriel Knight?), not strategy games. I think Sierra adventures games did a lot to drive upgrades for a while, since they were always on the cutting edge of technology (graphics, sound, storage media, etc). Not sure how much that will drive upgrades though since there will be diminishing returns. But frankly, if they went that route, why bother with games consoles at all? If you're making games for PCs that demand greater resources than game consoles, then why not also design the "twitch games" directly for PCs? And if that's the case, then why should anyone get less versatile game consoles? Just make those Kinect style sensors, etc, accessories.
        hmmm,
  • Spot on

    Yes, mobility, usability & practicality of various form factors is where we're at, it could be argued smartphones & tablets are essentially mobile handheld personal computers could it not?
    yofuss
  • The PC industry slow down has to do with Win8, not just trends.

    PC users special order non-Win8 PC, steal Windows and crack it, or switch to Linux because they don't want Windows 8 which is a tablet OS not suitable for what PC users really want. But blog articles like this play it off as, "the death of the PC" because Microsoft itself, and others want to move to appliance\device linked software and are willing to screw PC manufacturers, software creators, and consumers to spin us into a monopoly based market where every hardware manufacturer can lock you into a proprietary OS.
    Socratesfoot
    • author is almsot right

      but it's not death of pc it's the slow agonizing death of microsoft.
      ljenux
    • Nonsense...

      Very...Very...Very Few users of PCs do anything like getting rid of whatever OS is on it when they buy it.

      90%+ just adapt. Geez... Windows 8 has a different start menu... get over it already. MS even gave you back your precious start button and allows you to boot directly to the desktop in the new FREE upgrade to Windows 8.1.

      Very few are running away from buying a new PC because of an OS upgrade.
      condelirios
      • easy for start menu...

        how do normal person get over the fact that you need even more expensive hardware to run it on half decent speed?
        how do normal person get over the fact that microsoft licence allows them to spy on you, on top of NSA and everyone else.
        how do normal person get over the fact that windows 8 has even more security holes than it's predecessors?
        how do normal person get over the fact that microsoft killed backward compatiblity so you can't run office 2003, which is closest thing to software that ever came out of microsoft horror story? (ok you can install libreoffice).
        how do normal person get over the fact that microsoft is not banned and destroyed by USA legal system despite everything they did?
        ljenux