They're killing the PC

Who? Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft to name four. Do you even care? You should.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

First things first. Yes, PC sales are dismal. They're not coming back. It's not just because we love our tablets and smartphones. It's also because almost all the vendors are pushing us away from the PC model to sealed, cloud-based appliances as fast as they can.

KayPro II
1982's KayPro II was my first "portable" PC. Underpowered in every way by our standards, it was still "my" computer, not a vendor or a carrier's locked-down device.

When I first start working with computers in the late 70s and early 80s, we were in a revolution. I was one of the people with a foot in both camps. I cut my programming teeth on mainframes and polished my administrative skills on Unix minis, but I also loved those first CP/M PCs. I knew that while "big iron" would always be important, the freedom that came first with CP/M- and  DOS-powered PCs was going to change the world.

Indeed, I can even fix on a date when the world changed: August 12, 1981. That was the day IBM introduced the IBM PC. With this, power shifted from IT to individual users.

Fast forward to 2013, and what do we see? We see computers everywhere. They're in our pockets as smartphones, they're in our purses and satchels as tablets, and, yes, some remain on our desktops as PCs.

But, the balance of power has changed. More and more, for all the speed of their processors and all gigabytes of storage that even the slowest and smallest have, it's no longer individuals, or IT, that's calling the shots. It's the vendors and carriers who decide what we can and can't do with them, whether we own our content, indeed whether we can do anything with "our" devices outside their many-eyed Argus gaze.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, ZDNet writer and a long-time Windows fan, has given up on Windows because Microsoft is making Windows 8.x increasingly hostile to experienced users with its "change for the sake of change." I agree. I saw Windows 8's failure coming from the start and Microsoft hasn't changed its course.

You know what? I doubt Microsoft really cares that Windows 8's adoption rate is behind even Vista's dismal first year.

Why? Because Microsoft looks to make its future dollars not from the desktop and its burned hardware partners, but from its own appliance lines, the Surface Pro 2 and the Surface 2, and its cloud-based applications such as Office 365.

Think about it. If Microsoft really wanted to keep users on Windows-based PCs, would they be offering OneNote, Lync, Skype, and SkyDrive available on Android and iOS? An Office 365-tethered version of Office Mobile is already available on iPhones, while Web versions of the core Office apps are also available on iPad and Android tablets. If Microsoft can rent you their services I don't think they give a damn what you're running them on.

Jason Perlow, like myself and Adrian is a ZDNet writer and a guy who grew up working and playing on PCs recently wrote. Jason wrote: "Where the end-point devices are concerned, whether we use Windows or Mac or something else entirely, such as a mobile OS like iOS or Android, we are simply end-users." In short, "It's all about the Apps, stupid. And the delivery mechanism for those apps and the data services they need resides in the Cloud." 

Amazon knows that. It's the company that turned the cloud from marketing hype to a business reality. Now, Amazon is trying to move what I think may prove to be the last of the truly popular PC operating systems, Windows 7, to the cloud.

I think Amazon will wind up having a roaring success with this since Microsoft sure doesn't want you using Windows 7, but users love it. There is, however, one major difference. Amazon doesn't give you a real PC with Windows; they're giving you a PC-like experience with Windows Server 2008R2 using its Destkop Experience running on top of their Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud.

It may look like a desktop, it may act like a desktop, but it's really Desktop as a Service (DaaS).

Google also gets this. The Chromebook is nominally a Linux-based PC, but it depends on Google's software-as-a-service (SaaS) cloud.

And, take a close look at the newest version of Google's other operating system: Android KitKat. You'll find that the Google Experience Launcher brings Google Now's predictive search functionality to the home screen. As ExtremeTech's Ryan Whitwam put it, "Google’s services are now front and center, and pushes all those OEM customizations into the background. This launcher is headed for a lot of Android phones, whether OEMs like it or not." 

We can talk all we want about which Android smartphone, tablet or Chromebook is the best, but the bottom line is Google search and SaaS bind them together into a single, seamless cloud-based whole.

It's the same with Apple. Their devices, unlike PCs, have always been closed boxes, but recently they've become even more sealed. Did it surprise anyone when iFixit gave the latest MacBook its lowest possible repairability score? Have you noticed that Apple still hasn't issued the Mavericks security patches to Mountain Lion?

Here's what I see happening: Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft all want us to buy appliances, not PCs. An appliance is a closed box. It can only run the operating system they stick you with. It will only run the applications they approve for it. Apple and Microsoft are particularly strict about this.

A corollary to this is that you must buy a new appliance every few years because the company will only support it that long. For example, you simply can't upgrade to the latest applications or operating system on older Apple or Android tablets and smartphones. With a PC, you could upgrade it, baby it, and run the newest programs and operating system for up to a decade. That isn't even an option with appliances.

At the same time, shrink-wrapped software is all but dead. It's not just physical shrink-wrapped I'm talking about, it's any downloadable software. Vendors would prefer that you have only a stub to launch a Web-based application or simply use a Web-based SaaS.

Indeed, everyone in the technology business is moving you to SaaS as fast as they can. Soon, if these companies have their way, all your applications and data will be on the cloud.

The PC revolution will have been over-turned. Once more, they, and not us, will control our computers. Privacy? What privacy? We'll have turned over everything to our corporate computer overlords.

Sure, some of us will still be making homebrew PCs, buying white box PCs, running our own servers, and using desktop Linux distributions for our operating systems. But, we'll be a tiny minority of hobbyists. In the late 70s, we were the vanguard of the PC revolution. In the mid-10s, we'll be the last remainder of do-it-yourself PC users.

It was fun while it lasted, but the convenience of appliances and the cloud is clearly more important to people than the freedom of choice and privacy that came with PCs. I, for one, will be sorry to see it go. Yes, I like the benefits of this new computing paradigm as much as anyone, but I know what we're losing. And, I, for one, will also still be using my own standalone PCs, servers, operating systems and applications to the bitter end.

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