Personal Computers: Dead or Transforming?

Talk about the death of the personal computer (the PC) has been all the rage lately. Tablets are taking over the world, the media says. Just look at the decline in PC shipments. That’s all the proof you need. Oh, you silly click-bait-driven tech writers. The PC isn’t dead. The “PC” will never die. But its form factor is certainly changing.

When personal computers came into existence the “desktop” form factor was all that was available. Even if someone had wanted a powerful, lightweight, portable machine (read a laptop), the parts were just too big to build such a thing. But technology has advanced, as it always seems to, and the bits and pieces that comprise a computer have become smaller and smaller, and more and more powerful, to the point where fitting all of that “desktop” computing horsepower into a little, portable, folding case has become commonplace. We now have laptops that weigh less than a couple of pounds and are almost thin enough to slice sandwich meats. Yet the traditional desktop lives on.

And now we are seeing a similar form factor shift with tablets. Why buy a desktop or a laptop when you can get a tablet, or a smartphone, some would argue? Tablets will force the extinction of desktops and laptops. Well, maybe. But not in the way you might think.

What most people really mean when they say tablets will replace PCs is that today’s limited-functionality tablet operating systems (i.e. iOS and Android), running on a tablet form factor, will replace the full powered desktop/laptop operating systems (i.e. Windows and Mac OS) running on desktops and laptops. But the form factor is largely irrelevant. With the right hardware, iOS and Android can be installed on a desktop or laptop instead of a tablet. Conversely, a full powered OS (again, Windows or Mac OS), with the right hardware, can be installed on desktops, laptops, or tablets. In fact, Windows 8 was developed to handle these types of diverse device installations. My guess is Mac OS will at some point also incorporate much of the finger-friendly functionality of iOS and iOS will cease to exist.

The reason some believe tablet OSes will win the operating system battle is that, for many people, today’s tablets offer enough computing power and functionality to do all the things they do with computers. They check email, surf the web, watch videos, etc. They consume content. They don’t need an office suite, or a software development package, or the ability to edit large photo and video files. They just need the basics. These consumers will likely never again buy a “PC” or at the very least will delay purchasing a new PC until the current machine is on its last leg.

But what about everyone else, those that produce content as well as consume it? These users will¬†always need a full powered OS, with the variable being the device on which the OS is installed. If I’m creating content, say a movie, or a video game, or an architectural blueprint, I’ll likely spend much of my time sitting at a desk. I’ll probably want a large screen, with a keyboard, and a mouse or some other input device. In this case, the size and shape of the computing box is largely irrelevant and driven by aesthetics. It could be the size of today’s desktops, the size of a smartphone, or driven by the cloud. As long as the computing power I need is there, looks (and location) are a personal preference. If I’m a mobile worker, I’ll either want a laptop, or a laptop/tablet hybrid, or a pure tablet. Regardless of the device choice, I still need the full power of a “desktop” OS. Of course, there are additional hybrid use situations, but I won’t go into every possibility.¬†So it isn’t that PCs are going away, it’s just that the devices on which the “PC” operating systems are installed are changing.

All that said, given advances in hardware, particularly CPU/GPU efficiencies and battery technology, it will one day be rather silly to have different OSes designed for different use cases. Honestly, we are pretty much there with Windows 8. If you could get 24 hours of battery life out of your tablet, running a full OS, that is just as finger friendly to use as today’s simplified tablet OSes, wouldn’t you prefer a full powered OS to a watered-down tablet OS? My guess is most people would say yes.

No, the PC isn’t dying, rather PC operating systems are evolving to be touch friendly and the devices on which these OSes are installed are changing. One day there will be no distinction between a “PC” and a tablet, because convergence will bring them together seamlessly.