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

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'?

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TOPICS: PCs, Windows
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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

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67 comments
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  • Software is what matters, really

    Interestingly, people used to not really get what job I am doing until I started developing for devices. Once I started showing them apps we did that run on phones or later on slates, they got it. To me, it is a really exciting time. We still develop for apps running on PCs, but I would say that this distinction is not super relevant to our trade. To the public, what we do is more visible (and more fun) than before, and that's cool. Like you I don't think that PCs will disappear, it's just that now we have more places to develop software for, and that is really exciting.
    lbugnion
    • You would agree

      that "develop once and run on both" is an enoumous time/effort saver.
      patrickco
  • What It Means Is, Everybody Who Wants A PC Has Got One

    Replacement PC sales are not enough to keep all the big PC makers afloat. Therefore one or two of them are going to have to leave the PC market, whether by finding a new line of business or going bust.

    There just isn't enough innovation in PCs to drive adoption in new markets, because of the stranglehold that Microsoft and Intel have on key components. So the OEMs are no longer bothering, instead they're moving to mobile devices, where Android is an enabler of innovation, rather than a choke on it.
    ldo17
    • Agreed

      Most people have moved from an 18 month to 3 year replacement cycle to one where they replace the device in 5 to 10 years, when it stops working.
      wright_is
      • It should be noted...

        ...that it will be a boon for consumers when the "post-PC" devices can achieve the longer replacement cycles now being achieved by the PC. Consumers will be able to spend less money on post-PC devices and spend more money on other devices, including "post post-PC" devices, whatever they may be.
        CHIP72
        • Vendors are taking steps to avoid this

          for example by just about welding devices shut.
          csomole
          • You mean Apple

            Samsung has said they won't do as Apple does by not letting you have access to the device. Now this doean't mean down the road in time they won't.
            jet1959mo@...
          • I think it depends on the class of device

            The smaller stuff (smartphones and tablets), which are currently viewed as getting upgraded every 2-3? years, are the ones trending to be non-repairable. They arent on the standard (and increasing) lifecycle of laptops/pcs.
            Non-Euclidean
        • The accident factor

          Most "post-PC" devices (tablets, smartphones) are portable, and thus far more subject to accidental damage, and typically less repairable than even most notebook computers, where display replacement is often a relatively easy task for a tech. I expect this alone would keep most post-PC devices from seeing the longer replacement cycles of personal computers.

          Another factor is that until flash memory chip capacities stop increasing, getting a new unit with more memory onboard (especially for those that don't accept microSD cards) will be a driving force in upgrades.
          lonniemcclure
    • Another "Aye"

      You don't need a new PC to do the stuff your old PC can do - your old PC still does it!
      Mac_PC_FenceSitter
  • At the heart

    It would be simpler to say 'the consumer PC diversification, started with mobile phones and iPods, has gathered pace and definition with smartphones, laptops, tablets and hybrid devices ... leaving the workstation as an increasingly niche product'. But media types e.g. ZDNET bloggers like to confuse things with sensationalist headlines :-( They just don't get to the heart of the matter.

    One suspects that many ZDNET bloggers ... and indeed MSFT ... have not yet come to grips with the physical realities of screen dimensions and their own finger sizes! ('Come to grips' - get it?) There is far too much forcing one product into the role of another for corporate gain.

    "PC hardware is going to keep getting cheaper, the consumed software and services will keep improving just like it always has."
    Probably so, but I am not optimistic about the value of hardware and services going forward. MSFT is following APPL down the route of expensive, low-functionality, non-repairable, locked-in devices ... coupled with expensive cloud services. (I mean just look at the shockingly bad value that is the Surface RT tablet!) Rather like the music industry the big players are trying to maintain their revenue streams with manoeuvres like subscriptions ... keeping the majority of the increased efficiency of technology advances to themselves. Most ZDNET bloggers seem blissfully ignorant of the strategy (I could be less charitable). There needs to be widespread opposition to this strategy ... as loud as the opposition to CISPA et al to prevent this happening. Awareness is so low, I am not hopeful :-(
    jacksonjohn
  • agreed

    Good points. Post-PC really does mean PC is going niche. More bluntly, the market will no longer grow and grow, it will likely continue to shrink and then stabilize. While PCs are not going anywhere for a long time, most people will spend less time on them than they have, but PCs will remain the workhorse for productivity. Importantly, many won't stop using them, they will use them less and replace them less frequently. As one author said, PCs have become microwaves - ubiquitous.
    UscholdM
  • As long as...

    my consumer device can also run my business software... That is what is important.

    I'm not going to buy multiple consumer devices and the device I do buy, has to do the "consumer" bit, as well as letting me finish presentations, write documentation or use our ERP system when I am at home. It also has to have a decent input method for entering large amounts of text. Something none of the "consumer" devices currently can, without getting a keyboard.

    I now have a tablet, but it runs Windows 8 and plugs into a desktop dock, so that it becomes a fully functioning Windows PC, for when I need to work or want to enter text.

    The smartphone is okay for reading short emails on the move and giving short replies, but if it requires a long reply, I'll wait until I get back to a "proper" device, where I can read comfortably and enter a decent reply. The tablet is the same, I can type in a reply, if I must, but if it isn't urgent, then it waits until I can plug it into a dock and enter the text properly.

    As long as the "device" relies on me typing text into it, it is going to remain tied to a desk or a portable keyboard dock. I get enough RSI problems with a normal keyboard, let alone a touch screen, which is why I use Natural keyboards.

    Once we get past having to type, then I think we will see a real revolution in the PC "device" world.

    Voice recognition doesn't cut it, especially in crowded areas, open plan offices or generally if you have an accent. Handwriting works on a tablet with a stylus very nicely, but it is slower than typing or writing on paper.
    wright_is
    • Voice recognition

      It is hard to believe that voice recognition has come a long way but, for as long as it has been in use, it should have been perfected by now given the advancements in hardware. If and when anyone gets it right, I do believe pc's will die.
      jet1959mo@...
      • I disagree

        Unless there is ubiquitous sub-vocalization/thought reading software, offices and every other place except your own closed room arent going to hack it with everyone talking to their machines. Yeah, I can just imagine you and the wide sitting on the couch, watching whatever on the boob tube and one of you is composing email/surfing on another device using voice input and totally spoiling the others enjoyment of the tv.

        NOT.
        Non-Euclidean
        • sp

          meant to say "you and the wife"

          +1 for worthless forum software with no editing capability.
          Non-Euclidean
    • Death Of PCs

      I agree with most comments.

      What I would like to see is a some thinking about that most insidious bit of antique hardware, the qwerty keyboard (someone is finally working on one I read recently) and to learn to input much faster - even though I have been 'typing' for 10 years, I still make errors.

      Antiquated keys like TAB are a bloody nuisance because one can touch them inadvertently and end up recovering your last sentence from another paragraph. Also, unless you do lots of figures, the non-option of a side numeric keyboard (as on Lenovo) is just a waste of space that could be used for bigger letter keys, as far as I'm concerned.

      My final pet hate are shiny screens. People who do real work get eye strain from glare and AG film is hard to find in SA - except for tablets and phones, the users of which need AG least. My last (Acer) came standard with a matt screen - now you don't seem to get an option to a shiny.

      Apart from 'apps' there's still room for imaginative thinking in the PC arena.
      bobcglewis
  • Some good points

    I don't think anything is dead quite yet, but agree with comments it is just diversifying based upon needs. I still find the desktop to be my gold standard, just by sheer size of monitor "real estate". Plugging in a computer into a HDMI television screen though it's USB, - now that may be the next big thing in terms of another "portable device". Wristbands - again another evolution in an additional method of deployment.
    D.J. 43
  • NO it will NOT.....

    REASON:
    Tablets and other mediums cannot at present and for the next years...
    Will/CANNOT give the edition/functions of a desktop running Office 2010, Publishing, Photo Editing, WEB page development, Database, to name a few....
    These functions require FULL DESKTOP functions, and processor requirements, NOT available with mobile, tablet or MS touch hardware.
    carlsf@...
    • Did you read the article?

      n/t
      Ndiaz.fuentes