The Overblown Death of the PC – Part 1


A month ago Regina Pilkington posed the question “Do you envision desktop computers as obsolete in a few years?” on LinkedIn and I waited before I answered, curious what others would say. I didn’t have to wait long. What I heard surprised me. And my response will surprise you.

Most of what I heard was:

  • The PC is dead or so in decline, it may as well be dead.
  • It has no future, it is being replaced by digital devices.
  • The PC is a dinosaur and is being replaced by BYOD and virtualization.
  • In a decade or less, there will be no market for PCs, look at their inevitable decline in the market.
  • Apple is getting out of the business, Dell is shifting markets, HP is foundering, the PC’s reign is over.

There were a few more moderate voices:

  • “The obsolescence of the desktop in my opinion is held back by the effectiveness of the desktop interface.”
  • “The form factor will survive over the next 5 – 10 years. The ease and size of the system is not possible in the tablet for now.” 
  • “My feeling is it will never be obsolete, it will be one of many different ways (just not the only one) to compute.”

And then one other voice rang out with the question, I think everyone was dreading:

  • “How long ago did that dinosaur called the mainframe disappear?” (He clarified saying he was being facetious because mainframes are still not dead.)

This question irks me when I see it making the rounds on the tech journals and publications because of the weak premise and lame assumptions used to prognosticate the Death of the PC and as if to make it worse, these tech pundits want to make predictions as if they were any better at predicting long-term technology trends than religious leaders are at predicting the end of the world. Let me save you the trouble. Manufacturers are scrambling and technology is changing but it is safe to say, the personal computer will be around for quite some time to come even if it doesn’t look quite like you remember it.

My response: No. The PC era is not over. Not by a long shot. Not even in a decade.

No matter what form it takes, no matter what it will look like, (smartphone, tablet, head-up display) the era of the PC (Personal Computer) is not over and not likely to be any time soon. If it is based in silicon, it is still a personal computer.

“Big boxes of mostly air” (as they are known by PC technicians) may fall from grace for those people who think smaller and more mobile is better, but those are the same people who will be complaining when network connectivity and data transfer rates can’t keep up with the increasing demand being placed on networked devices and the networks that serve them.

Add to this equation the varying reliability of the cloud infrastructure and people who depend on their portable device for computational ability will be sorely disappointed as more devices means interruptions in service due to demand load, poor design of software and hardware, incompatibilities of design and infrastructure, malware, viruses and good old-fashioned human error.

Despite the Microsoft and Apple compulsion to squeeze out new OS every two years or less, the software infrastructure for PCs is still more robust, stable and better defended than the portable OSs being used right now.

Those portable OSs are ripe for attack because they are being developed faster than they are being protected. Yes, someone will get around to writing tools for protection, but since there is little agreement on standards and protocols, hackers and their ilk will have a field day while such agreements are being forged. If you think the transition to portable devices will be smooth and seamless, you will be disappointed, no matter what pundits predict.

On top of everything else, those more portable devices are still not as powerful, not as expandable, not as configurable as a current desktop or well-made laptop, nor do they offer as many options for use.

  • They cannot be used in tandem, compounding their power and effectiveness. 
  • You will not see a server farm made with iPhones any time soon. 
  • They cannot be programmed or developed from, easily, if at all. 
  • They are primarily tools of data use, information viewing and consumption 
  • Devices are the digital equivalent of a television, a phone, and a piece of paper. 
  • Until they get an interface which integrates voice and gesture into an effective interface, they will always be substandard tools to do any advanced work such as design.

What smaller devices offer flexibility and portability. They are still PCs, now more personal than ever. They will still require powerful servers to coordinate their data, access search engines, and store data for use by these smaller RPC (remote personal computers). The PC era is not dead and will not likely be dead until such time as we are producing computers that are biological in nature and do not require the use of any technologies which currently resemble anything we do today.

The PC is transformed (again) it is now the Remote Personal Computer, it is the Server Computer, it is the distributed computing system (another aspect of ‘the cloud’.) This penchant for imagining the death of the PC is the same as when cars appeared and the death of the bicycle or the train were predicted. I still see trains and they are as vital a technology as they have ever been. I am still running over bike messengers on my way to work.

Instead of alarmist (and futile) predictions of the end of the PC as we know it, let’s instead predict how the PC will be transformed into a tool of greater utility and diversity, how we will make it easier to store, utilize and share information effectively without creating larger, slower, less efficient networks. Then we can talk about creating the next generation of computers which might truly lay the PC as we know it today, in all of its iterations, to rest.

3 responses to “The Overblown Death of the PC – Part 1

  1. Greetings. Sorry you haven’t heard from me in a while. I saw this and it was too hard to ignore.

    This. Truly and utterly, this. A good friend and I always joke about how every new year, tech publications have articles titled “Will 2013 be the year of cloud/Linux Desktop/whatever?”, and we have discussed the “Will the desktop get replaced?” issue as well.

    Personally, I don’t feel the desktop will ever go away. It is next to impossible to match the facilitation of productivity on mobile devices, although I suppose what “productivity” means depends on who you ask. Clerical work can be done on mobile devices. Creative work can’t. I don’t imagine mobile devices support Wacom tablets well, and just because they have styluses don’t mean they can compete with Wacom tablets. They certainly don’t run Blender, 3DS Max, or Premiere. Research and Development can’t be done either. I don’t see Visual Studio, SPSS, or SAS being ported to iOS or Android any time soon.

    Unix itself is the scientific community’s lovechild. Unix/Linux developers know better than to waste -too- much time porting software to mobile devices. Are there Linux/FOSS devs porting software to mobile devices? Probably. Apache on your Android phone? That’s probably a stretch.

    It would be like trying to use a space shuttle to drive on the freeway. We just don’t need to do it that way. Doing it that way would be more difficult.

    I remember when the Curiosity Mars Rover landed and the first pictures it took were beamed down to Earth. What came up on the mission control room’s projector screen was picture framed within a GNOME 2 window.

    It’s important to realize that we are talking Little League and Big League here, and mobile devices are “Little League”.

    • This is an excellent post with sound arguments and cogent explications. Well done, Thaddeus!

      SoundEagle concurs with both Mr Thaddeus Howze and Mr Isaias Sifuentes, and has never bought a single portable device, which is still plagued with unresolved limitation in functionality, rapid obsolescence and problems of disposal, with millions of these portable devices going to landfills and poisoning the environment.

      The small screen and tiny keys are barely tolerable.

  2. Simply put, what if I could not connect to the Internet with my mobile devices. At least I will have my PC (laptop) as a backup for any crucial applications and files I need. That’s why it is critical to make hard copy backups. It’s just that simply for me. I get your technical points about bandwidth, stability of the cloud, demand, etc. There are things I can not do on my mobile devices that I can do on my PC/Mac. Great article!

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