My ZDNet colleague Matt Baxter-Reynolds yesterday penned an excellent piece on Microsoft's failed "Windows 8 Project" and how the death of the PC could also be the death of Windows. While I agree with Baxter-Reynolds that Microsoft is going to face some serious challenges over the coming years as the era of the PC wanes, where he sees death as awaiting the platform, I see irrelevance as its ultimate fate.
See also: Problems facing supersized iPads and iPhones
I don't say this lightly either. Like Baxter-Reynolds, my career has, for several decades, been firmly rooted in the PC industry, and at the core of that has been Windows. And like Baxter-Reynolds, I also possess the superpowers/voodoo/magic/power needed to make PCs do what I want them to do. Give me an IT-related problem, and with a little time and adequate resources, I can put together the PC equivalent of the cotton gin.
I can safely say that I don't want to see the end of the PC. Ideally, I want things to stay just as they are for a long time.
But they're not, and people who think that the downturn in PC sales is temporary, or those who think that Windows is just as relevant and popular as it ever was, are either kidding themselves, deluded, or just desperately trying to plaster over the cracks in a crumbling ecosystem.
But as with most things in life, wishing for something doesn't make it so.
At a time when interest in and demand for consumer electronics is at its highest, Windows should be reaping the rewards of decades of groundwork. But it isn't, and both earnings and sales are suffering.
So, what's behind the swing from relevance to irrelevance? I see several factors at work.
Note that for the purposes of this piece I'm going to exclude any effect that the popularity of Windows XP, or the unpopularity that Windows Vista, might have had on Windows, as well as ignoring the effect that Microsoft's major Windows 8 paradigm shift might have had.
Microsoft flourished at a time when there was little in the way of competition. Apple's Mac OS, which was released a year before Windows, didn't offer much in the way of competition, and neither did Linux, which came on the scene in 1991.
Nowadays there's a lot more choice. In addition to direct desktop and notebook competition from OS X, there's Android and iOS kicking up a stir on the mobile front. And while the PC market is effectively saturated, demand continues to be strong for smartphone and tablets.
Choice invariably leads to the fracturing of markets, and this is what we are seeing happen with the PC.
Since people only have so much cash to spend on tech, while shiny new smartphones and tablets are grabbing consumer attention, PCs are being shouldered out of the limelight.
At a time when everyone – consumers and enterprise buyers alike – are price sensitive, a $300 slate or smartphone is far more compelling than a $500 PC.
Also, at a time when component prices are being pushed into the dirt, the Windows operating system has become the most expensive part of most PCs. This is not the case for OS X, Android, and iOS devices. Whiule OEMs can put pressure on the supply chain to keep hardware prices as low as possible, there's not a lot they can do about the cost of Windows.
A shift of focus from the OS to the browser and cloud services
Once upon a time, when you wanted to do something on a PC, you fired up an app. Now, when people want to do something, they fire up a web browser and type in a URL.
The thing about web services is that they are platform agnostic. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, along with countless other web services, do not depend on being viewed from a Windows PC. In fact, many are being increasingly optimized for non-PC platform.
What people want nowadays is not Windows, but a connection to the Internet.
Why pay for CPU power, RAM, and storage when you can rent – or use for free – a server on the web?
Thanks to an ever-increasing supply of computational cycles, RAM, and storage, smartphones and tablets are shifting from being "companion devices" to standalone devices capable of doing real work. What once needed a PC can now be done on a smartphone or tablet.
Even I'm seeing the effect of this. Unless I'm doing some very specific tasks – rendering high-end video, carrying out complex photo processing, doing some sort of heavy computational lifting – I can use my iPhone, iPad or Nexus 7. And even when I need more power than post-PC devices can offer me, less and less do I need a high-end, monster PC.
Low-cost post-PC devices have become "good enough" even for content creation.
Simplicity, or lack of it
Bottom line, some people don't have the time, energy, inclination, experience, or know-how to make Windows do what they want it to do. I know that there are times when I don't.
And I'm not alone.
When I read tweets from long-time tech veteran – and the person who, unbeknownst to him, was responsible for inspiring me to write about tech – Jon Honeyball about his struggles getting a printer working on Windows 8, that's a clear indication to me that the Windows ecosystem is broken. Sure, printers have always been the spawn of the devil, but given the ease with which I can connect my smartphones and tablets to a whole host of devices – from fitness wristbands to my car stereo – hooking a PC up to a printer should be a snap.
Over the two decades that I've been helping people make the most from their PCs, I've lost count of the number of times that I've told people to delve into the Windows registry or run some arcane command that, to them, looks like it might summon the undead. I thought I was helping, but in the long run I was part of the problem. I was helping a bloated, convoluted, increasingly user-unfriendly product retain its dominance.
The bottom line
Windows, along with the PC, is going to be around for years to come. We're not talking about the sudden, premature death of the two icons of the modern IT world. Instead, what we are seeing is a slow, but certain, slide into irrelevance. Just as the stone ax gave way to one made of bronze, the Windows-powered PC must now give way to better, more customized, more refined tools.