Who's killing the PC? Blame the cloud

Who's killing the PC? Blame the cloud

Summary: Gartner's and IDC's first quarter 2013 PC sales numbers look bad, but we shouldn't be surprised because we saw this coming nearly two years ago. Welcome to the Cenozoic era, Cretaceans.


If you've been following the news lately, you'd think it was the beginning of the end for the Personal Computer industry.

According to a report recently released by Gartner, sales of PCs in the first quarter of 2013, regardless of manufacturer and operating system platform, are the worst since an all-time low in the second quarter of 2009.

IDC presented similar results in another study that indicates sales are down 14 percent from the fourth quarter of 2012.


This is not just bad news, it's awful news for no matter who you are, whether you produce PC software and operating systems, or PCs and PC components themselves.

It also doesn't make a difference whether you're headquartered in Redmond, Santa Clara, Palo Alto, Cupertino, Austin, or Morrisville, North Carolina for that matter. Or Hong Kong.

I cannot say that I am particularly surprised about this, because this is a topic that I have been writing about for a while. 

A year ago, I participated in a Great Debate with ZDNet's Zack Whittaker on whether or not PC OEMs would survive in an environment dominated by smartphones and tablets.

I took the "No" side of the argument, and summarized my thoughts in an article aptly named "Post-PC era means mass extinction for personal computer OEMs".

I won that debate, by the way. For the second time in a row.

So the decline has been happening for at least two years, if not a bit more. We've seen the warning signs of a climate change, now we're seeing clear signs of the beginning of an extinction event.

Therefore, we can't blame this rightly or wrongly on the wholesale rejection of a single OS release by end users due to substantial UX changes as much as some people would like one to believe, because the downward trend has been with us for quite some time.  

The real reason why the PC era is coming to an end is the notion of "Good Enough" computing. 

Tablets and low-power convertibles and inexpensive ultrabooks provide an experience that yields sufficient functionality that is not as rich as the traditional PC experience, whether it is overall processing power or app complexity, but they are less expensive, more battery efficient and much easier to lug around.

I learned this lesson for myself personally when I went to a trade conference this week in Las Vegas and only brought a Microsoft Surface RT and two of my smartphones with me, an iPhone 5 and a Nokia 920. I was away from my home office with my full-blown PC laptop running Windows 8, and yet I was still able to get all of my work done.

I probably could have left my iPhone home entirely, but it was the one device that I own with an unlimited data plan for watching Netflix movies in my hotel room, and I chain-charged the phones so that one was always on duty. 

All of my important remote/mobile work was accomplished with a $500 tablet with a magnetic detachable keyboard and a smartphone.

Now, price and weight is only part of the equation. Yes, people really like the fact that these things are incredibly light, and they can get eight to ten hours of battery life, and you can still do a lot of things with them that PCs can do.

But to make these Post-PC devices do their magic, and to make the transition without being disruptive to the traditional business workflows and workloads that we currently enjoy, you need something significant to offload the functionality of complex applications that run on PCs today.

That significant thing is the Cloud, and I think we can also say with a high degree of confidence that this is going to be the workhorse of the personal computing experience going forward. Today, the Cloud is highly misunderstood and it is also in many cases vilified and feared.

But it is also what is going to facilitate a seamless transition to an industry dominated by Post-PC devices and allow our PC software ecosystem to evolve into a healthy end-state.

Without sophisticated Cloud-based applications, whether they are exposed by web services and accessed by simple applications running on iOS, Android or the Windows RT API, or as fully-hosted desktop apps running virtually in the datacenter via subscription or by using existing enterprise licensing models, Post-PC systems as we understand them in their roles as used in business and the enterprise will not work. 

So while Post-PC devices are cannibalizing their forebears for their lower price points, their superior battery life and lighter load, they are entirely dependent on the fundamental systems architecture, applications and business logic that were pioneered before them on PCs and continue to be essential today.

And as with any extinction event, the process does not happen overnight and there are those species that will continue to dominate regardless of the overall health of the ecosystem. The use of PCs is indeed declining, but certain form factors are succeeding even within that declining enviornment.

I recently ordered a Lenovo X1 Carbon Touch as my new work PC. You would think that with all this doom and gloom surrounding PC sales, I could get it delivered to my home office by FedEx or UPS in a week. Not so.

Lenovo might as well re-name the X1 Carbon Touch the X1 Unobtanium, because that's practically what it is. This high-end, touchscreen Windows 8 Ultrabook has over a one month lead time from order until delivery. I'll be lucky to receive mine sometime in June.

And as I understand, this is par for the course for other manufacturers with similar lightweight, convertible touchscreen devices. I've also been told by reliable sources that during the abysmal holiday season of 2012, big box stores didn't order enough of these systems and they sold out, whereas the old-school, heavier laptops and desktop systems didn't move and resulted in a surplus of these machines in the channel.

Why are these types of PCs thriving when others are not? Because they are adapting to their environment. The PC is changing its form factor to become more like its Post-PC counterparts. The dinosaurs are becoming birds. 

Some of this has to do with whether or not the OEM is especially agile and can mimic the attributes of their Post-PC manufacturing peers. Lenovo is a highly-focused Chinese company and understands how to leverage the Asian supply chain to its best advantage.

To quote my ZDNet colleague Ed Bott, "To a large extent, the secret of their success in the US is going up against the totally hapless HP and distracted Dell. So they maintain absolute sales in a shrinking market and actually gain share."

And like its Post-PC rival Samsung, Lenovo is also reportedly making investments in semiconductor technology so it can become more self-sufficient.

It should also be no surprise that Samsung is also doing well and actually growing its own PC business, which like Lenovo, are more of the extremely lightweight, Ultrabook style of machines that are targeted almost exclusively to business and the enterprise.

These birds for the most part aren't playing in the same consumer muck that their Cretaceous Tyrannosaurian and Certotopsian colleagues are. Which is why they are actually thriving in a chilling environment. 

The Mesozoic era of the PC had a good run. Are we now about to cede that to the Post-PC Cenozoic, dominated by birds that fly in the Clouds? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: PCs, Cloud, Hardware, Smartphones, Tablets


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • Windows 8

    blaming the decline of the PC on Windows 8 is the most ridiculous thing I've ever hear. The PC industry has been in decline for a number of years and the IDC report does not class hybrids and PC with detachable keyboards and touch screen as PC. The very devices you are likely to find running Windows 8.
    • Exactly wrong

      Nobody is buying new PCs because WinXP works just fine (and Win7 if you don't know any better) and no one wants to get stuck with Windows 8. You think PC sales are bad now, wait until WinXP support goes away completely next year. Linux, here we come.
      • When will Visual Studio and Adobe Creative Suite* run on Linux?

        * the ownership version, not the more expensive lease that renders a developer or designer incapable of working the moment the monthly ransom isn't paid?

        Do note the larger issues that are not here yet, but will be if these "free will" trends (since we surely cannot call them "market forces" replace freedom with being tethered to someone else and hope they do their job right because, in many peoples' experience, the old adage of "if you want it done right you do it yourself and tell the servicemen to go away before they make it even worse" still remains a not unreasonable truism.
        • Re: When will Visual Studio and Adobe Creative Suite* run on Linux?

          Probably never. And who cares? If you're not running Windows, then there's no point using Visual Studio, which is useless for non-Windows development.

          As for Adobe CS, its capabilities are way behind the powerhouse team of Linux apps like Gimp, Inkscape and Blender. Why bother with limited vector layers in a raster-centric program when you have a program that deals properly with vector graphics? Why bother with faux-3D effects when you have a program that knows how to produce real 3D effects?
          • re:And who cares?

            you gotta be kidding me.95% of all computers user worldwide cares.

            and adobe CS way behind the powerhouse team of Linux ? in what universe are you living in. ask those graphics designers,students,artist ,what they are using? or even game developers are using photoshop for their primary designs.
            Odel Babor
          • Re: 95% of all computers user worldwide cares.

            I've got news for you: 95% of all the computers in the world are built on ARM chips, not Intel chips, and your precious Windows apps don't run on ARM.
          • Hahah

            Almost all the computers are intel based (mac and pcs). You are confusing smartphones here. As for windows apps, they run on arm, desktop ones don't. You Linux guys are impossible.
          • Re: You are confusing smartphones here.

            Android is a proper computer OS, even if Apple's and Microsoft's mobile platforms are not.
          • Well, strictly speaking, that is incorrect.

            A "proper" computer operating system implements pre-emptive multitasking and has a full range of capabilities which allow multiple concurrent applications to run in their own address spec, completely independent of each other.

            iOS and Android (and Windows RT for that matter) have omitted those features in order to conserve both weight and battery life. It's the OS, not the hardware that makes the difference.
            M Wagner
          • A continuation of a 17yo argument

            "A 'proper' computer operating system implements pre-emptive multitasking"
            Reminds me of the argument I used to have about Windows95 and whether or not it was a "proper" OS.

            Maybe Android needs to integrate the powers that W95 and 98 had- the ability to boot and crash at the same time.
            Dave Keays
          • Well, strictly speaking, that is incorrect.

            A "proper" computer operating system implements pre-emptive multitasking and has a full range of capabilities which allow multiple concurrent applications to run in their own address spec, completely independent of each other.

            iOS and Android (and Windows RT for that matter) have omitted those features in order to conserve both weight and battery life. It's the OS, not the hardware that makes the difference.
            M Wagner
          • Android Mulitasking

            Android has always been able to multitask. I have several apps running at the same time on my old Motorola Droid at any one moment. Screen is mostly limited to a single app, but the rest continue to run. I call someone, and talk to them while I check an address, or read mail. I believe that Mr. Wagner has no correct knowledge of the system.

            Oh, the Droid ran 2.2, and now runs 2.3. The tablet runs 4.1. (ICS) All three of those allow for multitasking. What they don't do is to give the screen to multiple apps. I have to switch between apps for that.
          • Wow you are a lost ball

            in tall weed and REALLY do not know what you are talking about!
          • depends

            95% of computer users are running ARM? Depends what you consider a computer. Smart phones may have computational power but the definition of "computer" still seems to be for laptops and desktops. Tablets running full blown win 8 need Intel still.
          • Tablets running full blown Win8?

            No. Win8 RT is or could be full blown Win8. It's legacy Windows programs that need Intel. I see 2 possible futures for Microsoft:

            1) A potentially bright future where Microsoft migrates all its software, maybe even some "obsolete" programs, to ARM or ...

            2) A steady decline as Microsoft software sales fall off due to reduced investment in Intel based computing devices. This will probably push MS to increase prices to uphold its income level which will further reduce sales and MS will die or be taken over by a new upcoming software company which will implement option (1).

            Anyone who compares the efficient and versatile architecture and instruction set of the ARM with the power-hungry architecture and complex instruction set of Intel processors will appreciate the way processors have to go (have gone?).

            Intel made a fundamental design choice error back when they introduced the 8086 - backward compatibility with the 8085 at machine code level. Acorn, who developed the ARM prior to ARM becoming an independent company, chose the correct route - instead of trying to be backward compatible with anything, they designed a processor, the ARM, that was so fast it could emulate previous processors in software and so run legacy programs as fast as they ran on the earlier 8-bit slower processors. This meant that they were free to design the best possible processor with no legacy limitations. If only Intel had understood this and instead of selling the share of ARM that they inherited when they bought out DEC, had put all their skill into developing and improving the ARM, we'd all have lower electricity bills and faster computers than we do today.
          • Before You Decide

            Before you decide that ARM devices are not true computers, you might want to consider the supercomputers that run ARM processors (admittedly, several hundred thousand at a time). Those beasts make your vaunted high end PC look like the toy it really is.

            You are right that I don't want to do any real work (beyond email or conversation) on my phone, but, the basic computer in it is more powerful than the CAD station I was using 15 years ago.

            The biggest drawback is the small screen. The physical keyboard is also too small, though, if I turn the phone sideways, the software keyboard is just usable.

            It's better on the tablet. In future, with voice recognition, lack of a keyboard will not be an issue. We aren't really there yet, but, we are getting closer all the time.
          • "95% of all the computers in the world are built on ARM chips, not Intel.."

            dude take your medicine the cr@p your smoking is frying your brain. Or back to the fry station little boy.
          • but, he's right

            No, the original poster was correct. 95% of all computers do use something besides Intel Processors. Most computers, such as the one in your microwave, or the one in your car are smaller things that don't have or need a monitor or a keyboard.

            Also consider the PLCs that actually run most of the process industries and many factories. Those things use specialized processors. Even the lowly PIC controllers are computers.

            Even the new circuit breakers in homes have computers inside, to detect faults. The average person encounters several hundred computers each day, and doesn't even realize it most of the time.

            In the world, there are around 750 Million PC computers, out of an estimated 10 Billion computers.

            The Intel world is really a very small piece of the computer world. It's not the most important piece either. Yes, it can be replaced. It is slowly being replaced.

            PC's only retain relevance because the industry decided to lump them together with laptop computers, then with netbooks, and a few other devices. Take the computers lumped in with PC's which were once listed in separate categories, and you will see what is really happening to the PC market. It is dying, just as the previous workstation market did. Now, pressure is beginning to be felt by the laptop market.

            Change is truly the only constant.
          • ps vs gimp

            I find the Gimp is easier to use for online digital images (RGB) but inferior when it comes to color separation and the CYMK model. 10 years ago, the community college near me had classes in PS on the Mac but nothing in the package I was using off the PC- the GIMP. But with only a few exceptions (layers IIRC), they were similar. Some will disagree, it is just an opinion.
            Dave Keays
          • What The Tool Was Written For

            Dave Keays,

            Your observation is spot on. Photoshop was written for the publishing industry. It's images are stored in a CMYK format. The Gimp was written for image manipulation of computer images for display on computers. The Gimp stores it's images in RGB or CMR format.

            Both programs expanded into the others territory, but, they have limits there. You do lose some detail in the conversion process.

            If you care about it, you can run Adobe Photoshop, and most of the rest of the 'creative suite' under Wine. I have heard that it's a pain, though. Adobe encourages this, but doesn't want to stand behind the product under those circumstances. If you need Adobe CS for professional reasons, then you are probably better off running it in windows.