Industry analysts from Gartner and IDC are a bit at odds when it comes to the cause, but they agree on one thing: PC sales are falling far faster than expected. But I wouldn’t write off the supposedly beleaguered PC quite yet. In fact, I suspect most of us will be using these endlessly versatile devices for years and years to come.
If you’ve not heard the (bad) news, it goes like this: PC sales fell more than expected, year over year, in the first quarter of 2013, triggering the usual Chicken Little posturing from the “post-PC” crowd. Tablets and smartphones, they say, are dancing on the grave of the PC. And Windows 8 has not only not stopped the PC’s decline, it’s accelerated it.
That’s cute. But as with most things in life, the truth is a lot more nuanced than that.
With regard to tablets and PCs, these devices are increasingly used in addition to PCs, not in place of PCs, at least in established markets like the US. And no offense to tablet fans, but the move to complementary portable devices pre-dates the iPad: Consumers latched onto netbooks long before there even was an iPad.
PCs, too, are lasting a lot longer than they used to. And by that I mean the whole package, not just the hardware: Microsoft’s Windows XP retirement next year is going to be truly confusing to a lot of people because that OS still works fine for them. It’s a bit ironic that the improved quality of Windows can be tied to the decline in PC sales a decade after the fact, but it’s true. And because both Windows 7 and Windows 8 have lower hardware requirements than their predecessors, PCs will last even longer.
When you combine these two trends—ever-longer-lasting PCs and new complementary devices that are absolutely taking away people’s content consumption minutes—the PC isn’t so much dying as it is being given a new lease on life. I’m reminded of modern NBA stars, able to play basketball at a high level in their late 30’s and even early 40’s, because of a combination of factors that have nothing to do with their inherent quality compared with players of previous generations. Science and medicine have improved. So have PCs.
And let’s be clear. PC sales are down, but they’re not exactly non-existent. PC makers sold 77.75 million PCs in the first quarter of 2013, which is down 12.5 percent from the same quarter a year ago, sure. But that figure is also higher than every single Xbox 360 console that Microsoft has sold. Ever. And that device went on sale in November 2005, over seven years ago.
My point being, PCs aren’t actually going away. In the great debate over “post-PC” (Apple’s term for a future in which phones and tablets supplant PCs) versus “PC plus” (Microsoft’s term for a future in which phones, tablets, and PCs co-exist), we seem to be losing sight of the fact that Microsoft’s vision is the more correct one. And that’s because although PCs might be losing out to more personal devices for consumption activities, we still need to get work done. And no offense to the lucky few who can actually get real work done on an iPad, but you’re the exception, not the rule.
Indeed, in the original “post-PC” discussion around the release of the iPad, then-Apple CEO Steve Jobs compared these devices to vehicles. PCs, he said, were like trucks, and they would be supplanted by devices, which he compared to cars. This is a cute analogy, but like all imperfect comparisons it breaks down easily enough. And in the world of vehicles, cars and truck co-exist, and they do so with a variety of other vehicle types. This is happening in the market for computing devices too.
More to the point, when it comes to work, PCs rule. And they always will. I’ve spent more time than most investigating various “post-PC” devices, including every iPad model ever made, various Android tablets, and a growing selection of Windows 8 and RT tablets and hybrids. After months of experience with Microsoft’s Surface RT and Surface Pro tablets—arguably the best of that latter bunch—I came to an inescapable conclusion. Although they’re fun and interesting in some ways, I still need and prefer traditional PCs, both in the office—where I use a powerful, modern desktop computer—and on the road, where a 15-inch Ultrabook is my machine of choice.
The reason is simple: I actually work, all day long. I don’t just read email, browse the web, and take quick notes at meetings.
When I travel, I listen to music on my phone and I watched rented movies and read eBooks on a small and light tablet. In other words, I use these devices as many people do: as supplemental and complementary side-kicks. But when I need to get actual work done, out comes the PC, with its comfortable and full-sized keyboard, large screen, and full complement of professional productivity applications.
So yes, please enjoy your iPads and Surface tablets, your Android doo-hickeys and the silly number of games and other time-wasters you’ve installed on your smartphone. I’ll be the guy over there in corner, the one getting work done. And I won't be alone.