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The PC is back again. But for how long?

Microsoft is claiming a 'new era of the PC'. But how long will that last?
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Written by Steve Ranger, Editorial director, ZDNet on

In the last few years, PC sales have been in gradual decline for the obvious reason that, with the advent of smartphones and tablets, the one-size-fits-all approach offered by the PC didn't seem so relevant anymore - particularly for consumers.

That changed with the pandemic as many people rapidly realised that while tablets and smartphones are useful for watching video or sending a few messages, they are a lot less useful for long hours of working or learning.

Until we come up with something better, that old combination of screen and keyboard is just better for creative tasks than a screen alone. As a result, the PC has seen the biggest growth in a decade, with PC sales up 14% to 350 million this year.

Part of that was organisations buying notebooks to replace the desktop PCs locked away in offices they could not access, and part of its was families buying devices to keep them entertained and educated during lockdown.

By 2023 vendors will have sold an unexpected extra 130 million PCs above and beyond what they would have been expected a couple of years ago. And if it wasn't for the supply chain issues from which the whole tech industry has been suffering, PC makers would have probably sold even more.

Microsoft's Panos Panay recently dubbed this as a new "era of the PC", noting: "A new hybrid infrastructure now exists – across work, school and life – enabling more flexibility in where and how people spend their time. And the PC is the hub."

The PC back in fashion, it seems. But how long will that last? 

Microsoft, for sure, seems to argue that the PC is back for good.

"Windows now powers over 1.4 billion monthly active devices with overall time spent on Windows up 10% over pre pandemic levels. This quarter, Windows took share as through our customer insights research, we saw nearly 50% growth in people who plan to use their PC for creativity, gaming or for work. We continue to see people across organizations, schools and homes recognize the benefits of a PC for every person," Panay said.

What's certainly true is that the future technologies which some thought would be useful during the pandemic and lockdowns – like virtual reality and augmented reality – had little to no impact.

The familiar shape and functionality of the PC won out, even if it did require the rapid evolution of decent collaboration tools like Zoom and Microsoft's own Teams to help us all get work done. 

Still, there are now tens of millions more PCs in homes than otherwise would be the case.

Certainly Panay remains upbeat: "Windows will continue to be the backbone for innovation, a destination for gaming, creativity and exploration, and a gateway to the Metaverse," he argues.

But will all those new laptops and PCs simply start to gather dust again as and when we finally return to normal? Perhaps, as the freedom to travel further frees us from our home offices and allows us to roam again. Perhaps not, as remote working and remote education continue to be part of the new hybrid world.

Certainly the days of the PC as our only technology choice, or even our main device, are long gone. But maybe the unexpected return of the PC is a reminder that our use of technology can be more than just passive. It's a reminder that we can use technology to create, not just as a means to absorb whatever is delivered to us on those tiny screens. 

ZDNET'S MONDAY MORNING OPENER  

The Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. Since we run a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8:00am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6:00pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. A member writes it of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. 

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