Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: 2010s: The Decade in Review

The PC was supposed to die a decade ago. Instead, this happened

Back on January 27, 2010, a very Big Thinker declared the PC dead. A decade later, the PC is very much alive, although a time traveler from 2010 might not recognize it. Here's how this endangered species evolved and survived.

How the PC has evolved over the past decade

Not all that long ago, tech pundits were convinced that by 2020 the personal computer as we know it would be extinct. You can even mark the date and time of the PC's death: January 27, 2010, at 10:00 A.M. Pacific Time, when Steve Jobs stepped onto a San Francisco stage to unveil the iPad. The precise moment was documented by noted Big Thinker Nicholas Carr in The New Republic with this memorable headline: "The PC Officially Died Today."

A few months later, CNN Money added their own obituary, complete with charts and graphs: "The end of the desktop PC (seriously)." 

Fast-forward to April 2013, when Forbes was still looking for a pulse: "The Death of the PC Has Not Been Exaggerated." At the midpoint of the decade Wired was using the same clichéd headline (based on the most famous thing Mark Twain never said) but qualifying it with a wobbly adverb: "The Death of the PC Has Not Been Greatly Exaggerated."

And by 2017 The Inquirer, never one to shrink from a controversial topic, had conceded that the patient was apparently alive and well: "The PC still isn't dead and the market is 'stabilising'," they wrote.

And so, here we are, a full decade after the PC's untimely death, and the industry is still selling more than a quarter-billion-with-a-B personal computers every year. Which is pretty good for an industry that has been living on borrowed time for ten years.

Maybe the reason the PC industry hasn't suffered a mass extinction event yet is because they adapted, and because those competing platforms weren't able to take over every PC-centric task.

So what's different as we approach 2020? To get a proper before-and-after picture, I climbed into the Wayback Machine and traveled back to 2010.

The competitive landscape

You didn't have to be a Big Thinker with a book contract to see the beginnings of a Pretty Big Trend in 2010. Increasingly powerful mobile devices made it possible for people to quickly complete a variety of tasks that used to require a PC. That tech transition drained away much of the demand for PCs from consumers, although it made only the slightest dent on business demand.

The first casualty was the netbook, a category of cheap PCs that used underpowered Atom processors and smaller screens than you'd typically find on an entry-level laptop, on the theory that mere consumers wouldn't notice the difference.

asus-netbook-2010.jpg

The PC may be alive and well, but underpowered, clunky netbooks like this are long gone.

Spoiler: Consumers noticed the difference. Netbooks were slow and ugly and cheap, serving more as a reminder that you could get a real notebook for maybe $100 more. The category was gone almost before anyone noticed that it was fading.

Meanwhile, PC makers realized that at least two groups of customers were willing to pay a premium for a PC: business buyers and gamers. And so, as we shall see, OEMs began investing heavily in those two categories.

The hardware

Desktop PC configurations (conventional towers and small form factor devices) haven't changed much in the past decade, but portable PCs sure have. For a quick refresher course on what the laptop market looked like back in 2010, you don't need to borrow my Wayback Machine. Just read this excellent round-up of the best notebooks of 2010, as selected by Laptop Magazine editor Mark Spoonauer.

Here's what I noticed when I compared the class of 2010 to PC technology from a decade later.

They're thinner and lighter. The device that every PC manufacturer has aimed to emulate over the past decade is, without question, Apple's MacBook Air. The Laptop crew, in fact, designated it as their "Breakthrough Device" for 2010, calling the 2.3-pound and 2.9-pound devices "ridiculously light." Today, most high-end Windows PCs can meet or beat those specs, with the physical limitations of the battery and keyboard preventing them from getting much smaller or lighter. At least they don't need optical drives anymore.

macbook-air-2019.jpg

The original MacBook Air defined the thin-and-light-laptop category. This 2019 model is no longer so distinctive.

Touchscreens and 2-in-1s are common. Back in 2010, Microsoft was just beginning to show off its touch-enabled Windows 7 PCs, but they were quickly overshadowed by the iPad launch. By 2015, the category had solidified into a wide range of shape-shifting 2-in-1 devices. Today, touchscreens are common on Windows laptops but nonexistent on Apple's MacBook lines.

This gallery, from 2015, provides a snapshot of how that transformation looked at the dawn of the Windows 10 era. 

Solid state storage is standard. Conventional spinning disk media were all the rage in 2010, with reviewers praising devices that offered fast 7200 RPM hard drives. SSDs became an expensive option over the next few years and have dropped in price dramatically since, to the point where it's difficult today to find a portable PC with a conventional hard disk.

Battery life is better. Back in 2010, battery life benchmarks of 5-6 hours were considered good, and real world performance was always less impressive. Battery technology has improved since then, as have the ability of CPUs, chipsets, and system software to manage power usage. Modern PCs routinely get double the battery life of their ancestors from a decade ago.

Ports have evolved. Looking back on those laptop designs from 2010, I was struck by just how clunky the port lineup was. Consider the Alienware M11x "gaming netbook," which promised "the graphics power of a 15-inch laptop in an 11-inch form factor." It was admittedly small, but the entire left side was taken up by ports, including separate VGA, HDMI, and DisplayPort connector, plus full-size Ethernet, USB, and IEEE 1394 ports. On today's PCs, those would be replaced by one or two USB Type-C connectors.

alienware-ports-2010.jpg

For a tiny device, this 2010-vintage Alienware laptop sure packed in a lot of ports.

The software and services

A decade ago, most software was shrink-wrapped, and cloud storage was an interesting novelty. Office 365 wasn't introduced until 2011, and OneDrive was still called SkyDrive until 2014. Back in those days, average internet speeds weren't quite fast enough to make fully cloud-driven experiences practical.

Thanks to ubiquitous wireless connectivity and dramatically faster speeds, the cloud is no longer a curiosity. Likewise, web-based services are systematically eliminating the last traces of boxed software. By mid-decade, that trend was accelerating for Microsoft, arguably the most important company in the PC industry. (See "Microsoft's transition from traditional software to the cloud is picking up steam," published in 2015.)

Also: 8 ways you can (maybe) get Microsoft Office 365 for free or cheap 

The effect of that transformation on portable PCs is twofold. First, storage requirements have dropped significantly, with a 128 GB SSD sufficient for most midrange PCs. And second, wireless connectivity options have improved as Wi-Fi standards have evolved. And with ARM-based PCs and 5G mobile networks finally reaching the mainstream, we may see a rapid evolution in cellular connectivity soon.

The other big trend in software was the transformation of operating system upgrades, which used to be an expensive option and are now free. As I noted in this 2016 post, Apple dropped paid OS X upgrades in 2013, and Microsoft followed suit with the release of Windows 10 in 2015. The upshot is that the useful life of a PC can extend well beyond the traditional three or four years that used to represent a major new release and a major upgrade cycle.

In fact, one of the most interesting developments in the PC market is a logical extension of that trend: hardware subscriptions that replace PC ownership. Microsoft's version is called Surface All Access for Business; but Dell's PC as a Service (PCaaS) for Business is a much purer expression of the concept. Both plans allow you to lease a new PC with no upfront costs and one fixed monthly payment, then trade it for a new PC after 36 or 48 months. In Dell's case, they set everything up and securely remove data and recycle the PC at the end of the term.

The OEMs

At the beginning of the decade, just before the release of Apple's iPad, a PC was essential for consumers who wanted to do common online tasks like shopping or checking the news. But as I noted at the beginning of 2019, "the consumer market for PCs has essentially vanished" and three companies that focused primarily on business PCs took an increasingly larger share of sales and revenue: HP, Dell, and Lenovo. Companies like Toshiba and Fujitsu, which once had some of the most interesting designs around, exited the business.

The one major addition to the lineup of PC OEMs in this decade was a surprise, and also a bit of a roller coaster ride. Microsoft's reveal of the original Surface RT and Surface Pro in 2012 was a bold move. The failure of Surface RT was an expensive embarrassment. But the company's persistence and eventual success with Surface, turning it into a billion-dollar brand, was only surprising to people who haven't seen Microsoft's tenacity in other fields.

But of all the surprises the decade brought, the biggest was probably the change in Apple's fortunes. They started with the breakthrough device that defined the category, the MacBook Air. But somewhere along the line Cupertino seems to have taken its eye off the ball when it comes to the Mac. The hardware is underwhelming, the keyboards are defective, and the OS is buggy.

Maybe it wasn't the PC that died a decade ago. Maybe it was the Mac. At any rate, place your predictions on what PCs will look like in another 10 years, because it doesn't look like they'll be dying off any time soon.