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Death of the PC - Real or Hyperbole?

For the last several years, I have been hearing a great deal about the “end of the PC era” or how the PC is doomed. An article here from All Things Digital, for example, concludes that the PC era is over because during one business quarter PCs the majority of commodity memory chips known as DRAMs did not go into PCs.

For the last several years, I have been hearing a great deal about the “end of the PC era” or how the PC is doomed. An article here from All Things Digital, for example, concludes that the PC era is over because during one business quarter PCs the majority of commodity memory chips known as DRAMs did not go into PCs. Another article from Joe Wilcox at Beta News entitled Ding Dong the PC is Dead argues that tablets have caused people to shift from replacing PCs to purchasing tablets instead. 

For starters, it should be noted that the raw numbers do not back up the “PC is dead” thesis. I recently received a copy of Deloitte’s Technology, Media & Telecommunications Group’s 2013 predictions, and the report notes that in 2013 there will be an installed base of 1.6 billion PCs versus a quarter of a billion tablets. Deloitte also predicts that 80% of the internet traffic measured in bits will come from PC users, and that 70% of our time spent on computing devices will be on PCs.

Even more then the raw numbers, however, at a gut level the idea of a “Post-PC era” just does not compute (so to speak) for me. From a practical perspective, I cannot imagine doing serious Word Processing of any kind on a tablet or smart phone. Its’ not just the typing per-se, but everything that goes along with producing a serious document. For example, even for short messages, I find copying and pasting maddening on an iPad.

While it may be true that you can hook up a bluetooth keyboard to most tablets, the keyboard still feels small and is far from an adequate substitution for a PC. Every time I try to correct the spelling of a word on my iPad tablet within a broader sentence or paragraph I am reminded why I prefer to do anything approaching serious work on my PC and its’ easy to use mouse and keyboard combination. On top of that, even if I did have the most nimble of fingers for typing, I still use Microsoft Office extensively, and as noted in a prior article Office is not available on iPad’s iOS operating system. 

There are other advantages of a PC that I could point to as well – storage; connection to an HDMI projector for a presentation; and security (the flaws of Android are by now well documented)  - but the general point is that there are a whole series of applications and activities for which the PC will be best suited for the indefinite future. In that regard, I recently received a copy of Deloitte’s Technology, Media & Telecommunications Group’s 2013 predictions – which also believes that the notion of the “Death of the PC” is overdone – and one paragraph really sums up my thoughts perfectly:

“Certainly there are hundreds of millions of people who almost never need to use a spreadsheet or type hundreds or thousands of words. However there are 

hundreds of millions who do. And for those it would be practically impossible to replace their PCs with a smartphone or tablet.” 

Furthermore, from a broader business perspective, corporate IT departments have hundreds and billions of dollars invested in their Windows-based networks, and especially during the current economic environment, its’ highly unlikely we are going to see them suddenly rip out all that infrastructure and start over.

IT managers are, in general, a relatively risk-averse group – hence the old slogan that “no one ever got fired for buying IBM” – and as well they should be. With businesses so focused on quarterly results, no corporation is going to want to risk undertaking a comprehensive redo of much of their infrastructure without extensive testing and planning. Indeed, if you doubt this, consider that 40-50% of employees whose companies’ use Microsoft’s OS have still not been migrated from Windows XP to Windows 7. And you’re telling me that suddenly the IT managers’ supporting these tens of millions of employees are suddenly going to leap into the unknown, throw out all the PCs and give everyone a tablet? I’m not buying that.

Now, for all that above, its’ still worth noting that the tablet is a great device, especially for consumers. Its’ wonderful for its’ quick-starting portability, and nothing beats using it for internet surfing and reading. Like many, I love my tablet and in a pinch I can certainly confidently use it for basic business responsibilities. There are even going to be certain types of mobile jobs where a tablet may well end up being the primary computing device. 

Finally, I also fully admit that I am writing this partially from a personal perspective, and there are certainly plenty of executives even within traditional corporations who do find ways to use their tablets much more effectively at work then I might. I am willing to bet, however, that if you took a comprehensive poll of the American work force, the vast majority could not imagine doing their current jobs without the horsepower, ease of use and applications of a PC.

With that said, what the current era of computing should really be called is the “PC-Plus” era. We will continue to see more and more employers implementing BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policies as employees naturally bring their personal tablets and smart phones to work.  This does not mean that PCs will be replaced, but rather that tablets and PCs will be used in a complementary fashion.

Likewise, it seems likely that you will see more and more overlap between what we consider a “PC” and “tablet”. Just to take one obvious example, Microsoft’s new Surface Pro tablet – which has debuted to very positive reviews - could be seen as perhaps the first true PC/Tablet hybrid. It is a tablet, but it can also swivel to work as an ultrabook PC as well. I believe we will see many of the OEMs coming out with similarly designed products.

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