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Is There Still Hope Left in the Future of the PC?

By - Source: Tom's Hardware US | B 137 comments

AMD, Intel and Microsoft have all presented quarter reports that were well above analyst expectations. Despite the depressed mood in the economy, there are tremendous growth and record profits. Yet, as so often, the devil is in the detail.

Those who dominated the past three decades reveal weaknesses in markets that have made Apple the most profitable IT company. Should we make plans for the funeral of the PC?

The impression is certainly there. Microsoft had record revenue thanks to its Office business, server software and the Xbox 360. Windows, however, suffered from the third consecutive quarterly revenue decline. Is the market moving away from PCs and toward tablets and smartphones? Possibly. And what about Intel? Record revenue - the fifth record in a row - and net income that overshadows those glorious and hugely successful dotcom years. However Atom revenue and shipments are down and investors were disappointed, sending the stock down after the earnings announcement. It's nothing unusual for Intel. I actually can't remember the last time financial advisors and investors were jumping up and down in a similar way as they do over an Apple rumor. In all seriousness, Apple (or ARM) has still no competitive tablet processors, even if I am hearing that we should be seeing a significant announcement at IDF - sources at Intel claim that Intel CPUs will blow ARM out of the water. Given the success we are seeing at Apple, our negativism toward the PC and exaggerated expectations for the tablet, is it time to thank the PC for its service and simply say goodbye?

The Worst Case Scenario

If you have read my columns before, then you already know that I doubt that the tablet is what it is cracked to be. As long as Google and Android tablet makers keep shooting themselves in the foot, the tablet market will remain an iPad market. What we are seeing in the market today are largely unfinished products that are positioned wrong and ignore most lessons Apple should have taught them. For those who don't want an iPad (yet), the only option is a (mobile) PC. Until there are competitive tablets out there, the threat to the notebook is somewhat contained.

Let's also remember that about 400 million PCs will be sold this year, more than 225 million of them will be notebooks. Apple could be selling somewhere between 40 and 50 million iPads, which is pretty scary to PC makers, but then we also know that Apple has done its homework very well, better than PC makers have done theirs, and is harvesting the fruits of hard work. The most optimistic tablet shipment forecasts currently foresee about 220 - 250 million shipped tablets by 2015. These numbers indicate that the tablet may not be outselling the common PC anytime soon.

Also noteworthy is the fact that tablets and PCs have very different usage models. While the PC is much more a content creation device, the tablet is a content consumption device. In other words, the tablet is a lean-back device (if you imagine a scenario of using a tablet in a Starbucks), while the notebook is a lean-forward device. The ways we are using a notebook and tablet are not the same and it is unlikely that this will change in the next few years, unless one of two is able to bridge the gap to the other and destroy the opponent's market.

Does it make sense that PC manufacturers squeeze into a market that is defined by Apple and the only opportunity is not to lose contact to the latest iPad. Possibly, for some. However, what would lead us to believe that the traditional PC is dead? Clever marketing? Bias? Hysteria?

The World In Your Hands

Let me revise my headline above. There is hope left for the PC. In fact, the market has never really changed, with the exception that Apple has created an incentive for PC makers to be creative again. Let's be serious, with the exception of faster processors, form factor experiments and different colors, the PC is essentially the same it was in 1975 when Bill Gates had the vision of making a PC mainstream. 20 years later, Windows 3.11 made the PC mainstream and Microsoft carried the same excitement on its shoulders Apple has today. 15 years after Windows 95, we are still using a keyboard with a screen in front of us, despite decade-long promises of voice input and annual sci-fi presentations how the PC would look like five or ten years from now.

In a way, you could say that PC makers should be grateful that they had a 15 to 20 year run with a product that virtually changed itself on the inside, but effectively has not changed much since its invention. Just like Microsoft had a big vision in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Apple had it the 2000s and is running with it. As a PC maker, you have now the opportunity to be simply another company that is following the pack. If you are taking risks, you have an opportunity of becoming the next Apple. Famous technologist Alan Kay once said "The best way to predict the future is to invent it." I firmly believe in this statement. Apple is embraces it every day and has based its success on it.

The Future Is What You Make Of It

Claiming that there is no hope for the PC is silly. It is under pressure, but it is far from dying. What the PC needs is a good dose of innovation and not another iteration of "look, I am thinner and faster!" The PC needs believers and risk takers to experiment and invest in new ideas.

What could make the PC exciting again - so exciting that people are willing to wait in line for it? Do we have to change the data input model? Is the time finally ripe for voice input? What are the opportunities of 3D, an area that has conceivably just been scratched so far and is not seen with a truly innovative vision that is so compelling that we would actually want to go out and buy it? What about the next generation of a superphone that would integrate truly new features - such as Mozilla Labs' Seabird phone? What about the platform experience? How can applications evolve with HTML5 into a new area of usability? What about the idea of a platform that is so simple to use that people can build and customize their applications to fit their individual needs? If there is one company we believe can answer those questions, it is Apple. But there is no reason why anyone else could not do the same.

As the computer has moved to become a commodity, old values such as core hardware features have become largely irrelevant to those who represent the mainstream market. Does anyone care what processor and how much memory is in an iPad? Do people care that Apple's notebooks do not come with Intel's fastest processors? Exactly.

The PC is due for a major innovation push that is beyond new colors. The iPad is merely a milestone in the evolution of the PC and it will be succeeded by the next great idea. In fact, if you think about the opportunity, there may have never been a greater opportunity for PC makers than today.

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Top Comments
  • 46 Hide
    modinn , July 25, 2011 6:06 PM
    Because some people are buying a tablet instead of buying a product that they already own? PC's won't die. Tablets are a fad, just like 3-D movies have been in the past.
  • 43 Hide
    davewolfgang , July 25, 2011 6:33 PM
    1980's - The desktop PC is dead because the dumb client/server architecture.

    1990's - The desktop PC is dead because laptops.

    2000's - The desktop PC is dead because tables are the new "thing".

    2010's - The desktop PC is dead because.......??!???!??!?!?!!??


    2280's - The desktop PC is dead because......???

  • 35 Hide
    Engima , July 25, 2011 6:08 PM
    I don't think the PC will ever die away since there will always be advocates for it, such as when people started fearing that printed media (newspapers, books, magazines) would go extinct because of e-readers. I'll always use PC till the day I end.
Other Comments
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  • 10 Hide
    juiceman , July 25, 2011 6:05 PM
    There will always be hope for the 'transformed PC' which will still be a PC.
  • 46 Hide
    modinn , July 25, 2011 6:06 PM
    Because some people are buying a tablet instead of buying a product that they already own? PC's won't die. Tablets are a fad, just like 3-D movies have been in the past.
  • 35 Hide
    Engima , July 25, 2011 6:08 PM
    I don't think the PC will ever die away since there will always be advocates for it, such as when people started fearing that printed media (newspapers, books, magazines) would go extinct because of e-readers. I'll always use PC till the day I end.
  • 20 Hide
    eklipz330 , July 25, 2011 6:13 PM
    although those products offer a lot, it's not nearly as powerful or useful enough as a PC as of now. just can't beat a pc when it comes to sheer power, but it loses in portability
  • 15 Hide
    hardcore_gamer , July 25, 2011 6:16 PM
    Tablets are taking the market share of notebooks and netbooks.For applications demanding large processing/graphics power you still need a desktop PC. PCs are here to stay
  • 9 Hide
    koga73 , July 25, 2011 6:16 PM
    you cant do with a tablet what you can with a pc... and until that day comes I cant say the pc will ever become extinct.
  • 12 Hide
    Onus , July 25, 2011 6:27 PM
    For the PC's basic form factor to have not changed much other than style is not a valid criticism, any more than it is for the automobile and the bicycle: two form factors that have changed very little but simply work.
    I want to see a smartphone/iPod type device that, normally extremely downclocked to save power and lower temperature, when plugged into a docking station, interfaces with standard PC components and ramps up into a fully capable desktop PC. Then you'll have a device that adapts its form to the functions it is performing. Such a device could have intermediate steps as well, including the large tablet or laptop form factors, with power usage and performance again commensurate to the functions to be performed.
  • 11 Hide
    JohnnyLucky , July 25, 2011 6:30 PM
    Interesting article.

    I haven't paid much attention to iPads, tablets, netbooks, and mobile devices for several reasons. First, I use a desktop pc with a large 30 inch monitor to create. Second, my eyes are not as good as they used to be. Third, when I am out and about having a good time, the last thing I want to do is to waste time with a hand-held device.
  • 43 Hide
    davewolfgang , July 25, 2011 6:33 PM
    1980's - The desktop PC is dead because the dumb client/server architecture.

    1990's - The desktop PC is dead because laptops.

    2000's - The desktop PC is dead because tables are the new "thing".

    2010's - The desktop PC is dead because.......??!???!??!?!?!!??


    2280's - The desktop PC is dead because......???

  • 11 Hide
    Anonymous , July 25, 2011 6:36 PM
    The PC will die when someone invents a better input system for office workers than the current combination of desk, chair, keyboard and screen. Is that imminent? I thought not.
  • 12 Hide
    dgingeri , July 25, 2011 6:45 PM
    I'll tell you what I see for the future (10 years from now) of PCs:

    Standard work PC: stick with laptops, they'll become more powerful and have more run time on batteries, but generally be the same. Laptop processors and video cards will still lag behind desktops by 30-40% on the top end, probably in perpetuity. For the most part, it probably won't gain the features that desktops will because they just don't make sense for mobile use. Some low end workers will be stuck with low end desktops that will stay much like the computers of today.

    Technical work PC: desktops will gain several functions: voice recognition (real, usable, voice recognition, not the near useless stuff we have now), tablet connections, 'local' and remote cloud storage, and fast SSD local storage. For one, voice recognition is the interface for the future. It will allow engineers to make modifications much more easily, programmers to generate code 10 times as fast, and scientists to enter logs and maintain records of experiments. It will change all technical work. (Think Tony Stark in Iron Man.) Tablets will become attached accessories to technical desktops for the same reason. More easy access to information, and more screens for access to more information at once. Those of us who can handle it will probably have multiple screens and tablets for various aspects of designs. (I couldn't count the number of times I've had half a dozen or more interface screens for various servers monitoring activity and trying to make things work together right. I could actually make use of a dozen screens without tapping out my attention.) Most storage has already gone to file servers at work these days, but I forsee having future versions of Windows, or whatever OS we wind up with at that point, defaulting to LAN storage. In addition, servers these days already have distributed storage, which I see getting far more distributed for faster access to people in multiple locations. What we see as "cloud" storage right now will just be the way things work in business 10 years from now. These machines will certainly go toward the way gaming PCs are right now: main storage will be fast SSDs, probably to the point where PC cases will not even have hard drive bays, but the motherboards will have multiple mSATA slots for local storage.

    Gaming PCs will probably be much like technical work PCs, as they are today, with lesser capabilities in certain areas, but more in others.

    Typical home user systems: probably low end PCs and tablets with a file server in most basements. I already have this, and I'm certain it will push into other homes, starting with relatives of do-it-yourselfers like me. I'm going to be building a server for both my parents and my older sister and her family in the next year or so. Users will store local copies of high bandwidth necessary items, like streaming movies in high def, because the internet won't be able to keep up. I believe certain industries will make apps for home servers so that movies, music, and TV will be streamed to their local server by subscription during off-peak hours, and become available at a designated time and date according to what the studio sets. They'll probably even use peer-to-peer standards like Bit Torrent to do it. Then people will use their TVs with ARM processors and Linux based OSs to watch the shows and movies when they feel like it, probably through a pay-per-view system or possibly with a monthly subscription. This would be advantageous for both home viewers and studios because the studios will know exactly what is popular, no longer relying on rating systems that are approximations at best, and viewers can get the content they want without being bombarded by garbage they don't want. Apple will probably start this trend with others coming in later, unfortunately. Microsoft has a real chance to take leadership in this area, but I doubt they'll get their heads out of their butts long enough to see it until Apple has a majority of the market.
  • 7 Hide
    modinn , July 25, 2011 6:47 PM
    oxxfatelostxxoover time pc sales will dwindle down to almost nothing, as time goes on tablets and labtops are more and more capable of delivering what people want on a performance note.While they will never fully catch up to pc's, only truly hardcore gamers or servers will need them at some point.

    Tell that to the people in the late 90's who thought 1 Gigabyte in a Hard Drive was unnecessary and no one would ever be able to fill it up entirely. I'd venture to say most of them changed that perception quickly in the 21st Century.

    Hardware will always be pushed further and Moore's Law will follow the trend. As will the hardware requirements for software. Don't think that today's software will be the same software used in about 10 years time.

    From a consumer aspect, yes tablets and mobile PC's will dominate over the coming years. But from a business aspect, the Personal Computer is here to stay and allows for more productivity than a Tablet or Laptop could ever produce (see OS Domain Control).

    Technology will push further and companies will continue to buy the best hardware they can afford so that they can produce the best and fastest products that are physically possible with the techonology at hand.

    If we limit ourselves to the performance of Tablets and Notebooks, where would we be? After all, the hardware in these machines were in top-of-the-line PCs at least a year ago (if not more). Tablet, Notebook, and Console owners should be thankful for what the PC community does for the Electronics industry.

  • -6 Hide
    clonazepam , July 25, 2011 6:48 PM
    I'd said previously, Im waiting for someone with the balls to throw away all the current standards for desktops / towers, and start from scratch.

    The first step is taking an i7-2600k at 4.5ghz, 16gb ram, gtx 570/amd 6970+ level graphics, and squeeze it all into something the size if mini-itx, w/o any compromises as far as cooling, power, power consumption, and upgrade ability.

    No more locked anything. No more new socket designs over and over. Figure out how to make a socket that has more available features / resources than you currently can utilize. Examine in close detail the evolution of your sockets, and try to determine future needs of processors.

    Everyone that buys a computer knows it's been outdated since it hit the retail shelves. Change that. Name any other industry that allows that stigma to continue unchecked. Even if you only fool the sheep in the short-term, it'll help you make it a reality.

    Obviously, prices have to drop. Hmm, I would like to play games in full detail at 1080p (ex. crysis 2). Well... I'm on a budget, so I'll go with a game console. baamm.. u just lost (a lot).

    How much is enough? There's different ways to make money. There's the guy that sells a bottle of sparkling wine for $100, and there's the guy that sells his for $100 for a box of 8-10-12 bottles. They're both most likely pretty well off if they've made a good product and MARKETED it properly. Example: Car Salesman "Would you be interested in this $30k car?" Customer "Well, I heard its already considered old." Salesman "Yeah well that's pretty normal, they're actually outdated by the time they get shipped around to all the sales lots. It's just the way it is."

    ummm (Windows, Intel, AMD, nVidia based) PC 4 Life. Live long and prosper.
  • 17 Hide
    cyprod , July 25, 2011 6:51 PM
    what's up with all the click-bate articles from wolfgang? No, apple isn't invincible. No, the PC isn't going anywhere. Seriously, how much apple stock does this guy own? Until somebody can produce a product which has the ease of use and portability of the modern portable devices and the functionality and productive usability of a PC, the PC won't be going anywhere.
  • 12 Hide
    hangfirew8 , July 25, 2011 6:54 PM
    Corporate IT likes desktops, because they are easier to chain to the desk and less desirable to steal. Yes, laptops have Kensington locks, but can still be stripped with a screwdriver, while a PC requires the lock tab at the back to be cut.

    Desktops do not lock the IT department into a cloud, web 2.0, thin client, etc. solution, but can do them all, as well as their own local apps. That versatility is unmatched.

    Wired ethernet is easier to secure.

    Programmers, even web, cloud, and mobile programmers, still need big monitors and real keyboards, as do graphics designers and engineers and CAD operators.

    The PC (call it workstation of whatever) is here to stay, it will just be a smaller slice of the pie, instead of the whole pie.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , July 25, 2011 6:56 PM
    Probably 80% of users are just consumers of content with the occasional entry in Email, chat or social network. I think the PC will morph into the family home nerve center. Will it lose user ship, you bet. Dead, well...not
  • 11 Hide
    sunflier , July 25, 2011 7:00 PM
    My Gaming Center is my little piece of heaven on earth. When I want to get away from reality and slip into the world of a good FPS that's where you'll find me.

    There's no smartphone or pad-anything or tablet that can push a game like Crysis(2), Gears of War(X), BF2 (soon 3), Call of Duty(X) MW(X) and Black ops, and so on and so on, like the horsepower of an AMD/Intel/nvidia driven rig. And even if they could the 4" - 10" screen is too damn small anyways.
  • 16 Hide
    cuecuemore , July 25, 2011 7:03 PM
    We get another one of these articles every two weeks... is there still hope for the future of the PC? Yes, for decades to come. That was easy.
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