Is The PC Dead? Is A Strange Question To Ask

IMG_8853CSC hosts a regular series of Town Hall discussions which are streamed and available on demand, they are well worth watching (although the quality of Google hangouts leaves something to be desired).  The latest of these discussions sought to answer the question “Is the PC dead?” which had a further subtitle “With the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and mobile technologies, the very future of the PC has been questioned. Is there a place for PCs in the enterprise?”.  The question must be important, because lots of people are asking it, but it’s also a strange question to ask as no one ever seems to define what they mean by a PC, or what they mean by ‘Dead’.  This discussion is no different, it touches on a lot of interesting topics, new purchasing models, new user interface paradigms, new form factors and ways of co-creating value, but unfortunately it doesn’t go anywhere near answering the question.  It was frustrating and as is often the case when I get frustrated I write a blog post. 

This blog post is my long winded attempt at working towards an answer to the question:

No, the PC isn’t dead or at any risk of dying.

First we need to decide on some definitions and I will start with asking the question what do we mean by a PC.  Well the broad definition of a PC is of course a “personal computer” and everything we use today including the smartphone, tablet, hybrid, notebook, desktop and workstation are all personal computers, this meaning of PC clearly isn’t dead.

So we need to de-scope the definition to something that might conceivably be considered to be of at least declining importance.  So we might say by PC we mean a device running the Microsoft Windows (Windows from now on) operating system, but if we use this definition then it’s clearly not dead.  Devices running the Windows operating system still power almost all general knowledge work, and a good share of science, engineering, graphics design and other media production.  Whilst it’s true that competition is increasing from Apple OSX and to a lesser extent IOS/Android, Windows is still clearly king at work, far from dead. Windows is an operating system designed for the mouse, keyboard, true multi-tasking and multiple screens, all essential for real creative work.  Other UI technologies are all complements to these foundations, not replacements.

So we need to de-scope further, perhaps we mean a device running the Windows operating system that sits on a desk and is used for routine office work, a Desktop PC, hmm not dead.  Desktop PCs are still widely in use today and where they are being replaced it’s with thin clients that connect to virtual windows desktops running remotely.  The physical device might be of declining importance, but from a users perspective they are still using a Windows operating system, running Windows applications, sitting at a desk, the PC has changed form factor but it’s not dead!

De-scoping further, do we mean mobile windows devices (notebooks, tablets), hardly, Windows notebooks, especially Ultrabooks are still the most important personal computing devices in the enterprise when it comes to getting real work done, I’m using one now.

We’ve run out of options, there’s no definition of personal computer that used to be ‘alive’ that is now at risk of ‘death’ that I can find expect the already dead Windows Tablet, so lets look at that.  Well the Windows tablet used to be alive an well a decade ago, but a combination of cost, neglect and poor applications support meant that it became a small and declining, but still important niche.  Now though with Windows 8 and soon Windows 10 and the market creating Microsoft Surface hardware line Windows tablets are on the up, alive and well, far from dead.

So why do people keep asking, or asserting, that the PC is dead, I don’t really know, but I suspect that most people are assuming incorrectly that the massive growth of non-Windows personal computers at home, leads to a correspondingly massive decline in existing Windows personal computers at work and home, not really.

I offer up these additional thoughts:

  1. Personal computers are everywhere, they are in every form factor running many operating systems, they have never been more relevant
  2. The ‘state’ of a personal computer, i.e. the applications installed on it, their configuration and data is increasingly stored in the cloud and can be restored to a new personal computer easily.  From that perspective a personal computer is just as personal, but that ‘personality’ is no longer associated only with the physical device, resides up in the ‘cloud’.
  3. Personal computers running Windows are just as important as they ever were, they power businesses of every type, but they are being complemented by cloud services and devices that don’t run windows as well. 
  4. The cloud is increasingly the integration point for applications rather than the Windows PC.
  5. Windows as am application platform is of declining importance, but because of the huge legacy of Windows business critical applications it’s still important.  Microsoft are working hard to halt that decline through open sourcing .NET and porting it to OSX and Linux servers
  6. Windows (compared to IOS/Android) is still the best operating system for the keyboard and mouse and these are still the best tools for getting work done while sitting (or at a standing/treadmill desk)
  7. There are some use cases that were massively over-served by the power and flexibility of a Windows personal computer, for example primary education. Devices like Chrome books are being adopted for these.
  8. There are some use cases that are best served by handheld touch enabled devices, augmented reality and virtual reality headsets, these were never served by Windows PCs, they are on the rise but are mostly supplementing Windows PCs.
  9. There are many home use cases that were badly served by Windows desktop and notebook PCs, tablets and smartphones are now meeting those needs, many consumers are finding that they don’t need anything else and so Windows PCs are declining there.  Their users are finding their personal tablets and smartphones useful for some enterprise use cases, but they are mostly supplemental
  10. Windows as an operating system is being optimised for many form factors from the phone to the Xbox, although traditional Windows applications only execute on a subset of these, but Windows is unlikely to ever dominate any of the new form factors.
  11. The PC is not dying in any form factor or operating system, but desktop devices are declining on the desk and in the home.

It’s worth mentioning that some people push the boundaries of what’s possible on a tablet like an iPad to do even high end knowledge work all day long.  These people are the exception, they are either particularly talented or prepared to suffer a significant drop in effectiveness for a slightly lighter bag.

In summary:

  • the number of personal computers is dramatically increasing
  • the share of these devices running Windows is declining but Windows is still king for most creative, task and knowledge work
  • new form factors are emerging and mostly supplementing existing notebooks, desktops and workstations
  • at work physical desktops are being replaced by portable devices and/or thin clients accessing remote virtual desktops, the PC is evolving not dying
  • at home desktops are being replaced by notebooks and tablets, often both

If you want to watch the discussion that promoted this rambling blog post, it’s linked below:

Is the PC Dead?

I wrote this post on my traditional Thinkpad X230 laptop, I’ve tried so many modern alternatives but keep coming back to the trusty X230, still the best laptop for getting work done that I’ve ever used.  I’ve chosen a picture of a sunset on the beach at the end of my street, which I thought was ironic given what I consider to be the hype around the decline (setting sun) of the PC and it’s subsequent resurgence (sunrise)

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

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