Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services

Is the Desktop PC Dead?

A look at the changing nature of computing

A circuit board shaped like a human head tied to computer circuitry.

PC usage has been in a historical decline, particularly desktop computers. To see why, let's examine a bit of history.

IBM Launches the PC

When the IBM Personal Computer was launched in 1981, business began a gradual shift from mainframe computers, an industry dominated by IBM.

Computers were very expensive and there were few home PCs since only businesses could justify such an expense.

Initially, there was little competition since IBM had patented the microprocessor. Most “clone” PCs were less powerful and often tended to have some glitches.

Compaq produced some of the first IBM PC compatible computers, being the second company after Columbia Data Products to legally reverse engineer the BIOS of the IBM Personal Computer.

Lotus 1-2-3: The Killer App

The launch of Lotus 1-2-3, an early spreadsheet program, was the killer app that changed everything for the PC.

Not only could businesses track their expenses almost in real time but they no longer had to wait months for their accountants to tell them how their business was doing. The ability to generate almost instantaneous income and balance sheets, graphs and “what-if” scenarios was a game-changer for businesses.

Critical to Business

Lotus 1-2-3 was so critical to business that it became an important test for the suitability of hardware:

The reliance on the specific hardware of the IBM PC led to [Lotus] 1-2-3 being utilized as one of the two stress test applications, along with Microsoft Flight Simulator, for true 100% compatibility when PC clones appeared in the early 1980s.

Moore's Law

At one point, the pace of new technology was so fast that the cutting edge software and hardware would be obsolete in 18–24 months, a process known as Moore's law. As a result, computer sales were brisk year after year.

The Technology Pace Slows

Then the pace of technical change began to slow.

People increasingly no longer saw the technical advantages to newer hardware and software. Dealing with change was no longer rewarded with recognizable benefits worth the effort.

The Emergence of Mobile Devices

With the gaining popularity and market share of mobile computing devices, particularly tablets and smart phones, desktop PC sales stagnated.

This move to the cloud echoes the pre-Internet days when online meant accessing “walled gardens” of content using subscriptions to AOL and Compuserve using dial-up modems.

Companies like Microsoft, Apple and Intuit had to change to remain competitive. Over time the connectivity to social media, instant messaging and the ability to begin working on one device and finishing it on another was incorporated into software and hardware changes.

The Pandemic Slowed the Decline

Interestingly enough, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed the trends away from computers, at least temporarily. Work moved from the office to the home as people sheltered in place and social engagements mostly ceased.

The coronavirus pandemic forced millions of people around the world to turn their living rooms into their new offices.


And one of the biggest beneficiaries of this transformation has been the PC market.
Yahoo! Finance

People invested heavily in PC technology for their new home office.

[T]he PC market grew by a whopping 25% year-over-year in the fourth quarter of 2020, with more than 90 million units shipped worldwide.


While some employees may return to the office…some surveys show the shift towards more remote work will outlast the pandemic.
Yahoo! Finance

In many cases laptops have supplanted traditional desktop computers to provide mobility and portability — now possible because they were nearly as powerful as desktop units.

Desktops might not have the glitz and glamor of ultra-portable laptops, but they're still essential for work.

Technology Still Growing

While PC technology was still advancing, it was becoming less compelling.

Unless you were a developer or were dealing with large amounts of data, you could do most of your computing on a mobile device that provided convenience at a reasonable price.

[T]he PC isn't dead. What is dead is the old aggressive upgrade cycle that saw PCs being replaced every few years. Not only do people have more cool, shiny things to spend their money on — smartphones and tablets and the like — but also PCs have reached the point where they're powerful enough to last longer than ever.

The Factors at Play

Let's have a look at the historical aspect and the factors at play.

By the time Windows XP reached its end of support in 2014:

Because many households already owned more than one PC still capable of decent performance,it allowed people to consider the luxury of a portable device.

Later Windows 7 then Windows 10 users showed the same reluctance to upgrade. Microsoft found itself dealing with growing numbers of folks running legacy Windows systems and began to revise their thinking.

The rate of PC replacement naturally declined but the PC itself was not dead.

Windows 8 Missed the Boat

Microsoft had simply failed to provide true value or compelling reasons for users to upgrade or purchase a new computer. Instead they focussed on obtaining a controlling share of the lucrative new phone and tablet market.

Microsoft began to revise their thinking, moving to the “Modern Lifecycle” of support and embracing the move to mobile. Microsoft began to rebrand themselves as a services company. Traditional PC products like Microsoft Office were replaced with Office 365 (later called Microsoft 365) that was designed for the Cloud rather than tied to the PC.

Windows 8 was released during the last days of XP support. Most people using Windows XP or Windows 7 and had no compelling reason to upgrade since their computers could do all they needed them to do.

To top that off, Microsoft had moved to an operating system that didn't suit traditional desktop users (those employing a mouse and keyboard). This created a conflict between people's perceived needs and what Microsoft had done with Windows 8.

Microsoft wanted Windows 8 to reflect the future of computing, but in achieving that goal it lost sight of the fact that the majority of Windows users are stuck in the here and now using budget hardware attached to keyboards and mice.

Microsoft had focused on their own ambitions than truly meeting the needs of their traditional customers.

Not the First Time

Microsoft wasn't the first to make this mistake.

Back when the PC was launched by IBM, it didn't consider the PC a serious competitor to their mainframe computer systems. Rather than accept the offer to purchase Microsoft's DOS operating system, IBM chose instead to licence it.

Even though IBM launched the business PC, that decision, followed by other miscalculations, ensured Microsoft's success at IBM's expense. IBM retains a powerful presence in big business services but is virtually forgotten by consumers.

Tablet Technology Doesn't Sell Desktops

Microsoft also miscalculated when it tried to capture the emerging portable device market.

Their pay-to-upgrade approach was competing with the relatively-new (and free) Android OS. Google makes its money from advertising, not on Google Mail (Gmail), Google Maps, Google Docs, Google Chrome or Google Search.

By the time Microsoft realized its mistake, Android was the default OS for small devices and Apple had captured the high end of the market. Windows Phone never captured the market share anticipated because of the Microsoft dominance in the PC market.

The Microsoft Store which, developed for the Microsoft Phone, was to be included in Windows 10 and later as a source for apps on Windows N computers.

A “Catastrophe” for Serious Gamers

Serious gamers want the latest and greatest and are willing to spend obscene amounts to get it. Gamers carried the PC industry for several years after PC sales slumped when the tech bubble burst in 2000.

Gabe Newell, managing directory of Valve (a video game development and distribution company), stated: I think Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space. I think we'll lose some of the top-tier PC/OEMs, who will exit the market.

PC Sales Drop

The sales of both Windows 8 and desktop computers flatlined.

In December 2011, a month when tablets outsold the 2011 sales of standard PCs, only 10% of U.S. households owned a tablet.

A Post-PC World?

Many at that time, including Microsoft's former chief software architect, felt that the day of the computer was finished, that we had entered a post-PC world.

Of course we're in a post-PC world.
— Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's former chief software architect

While mobile devices have become ubiquitous, not everyone has abandoned computers. Tablets have yet to replace computers for serious PC users — those that generate content that doesn't fit well into the mobile paradigm — including large-scale developers and those managing huge chunks of data.

While this market is primarily in business, the desktop also provides a more comfortable environment for those that need very large screens or open more than a couple of apps at one time.

Other Factors

Microsoft Misread the Threat of Mobile

Much like IBM in an earlier era, Microsoft had misread the threat of mobile.

Microsoft failed in their bid to be a player in the mobile phone market because they couldn't compete with Android's free OS strategy.

Android and Apple smart phones and tablets provided enough power for basic email, web surfing and social media and were essentially free (their cost contained within monthly cellular fees).

Not having to lay down a significant chunk of cash to purchase a smartphone or tablet was a game changer.

The Microsoft Gamble

Microsoft lost ground in the PC market because they failed to provide value.

They gambled on their belief that folks were ready to move into a touch-only environment while ignoring the loyal keyboard and mouse desktop market. Windows 8 came at a point where support for Windows XP was almost over, yet most folks were happy with that computing environment.

This contributed to the decline in PC sales while at the same time Microsoft lost their bid to be a player in the mobile phone market in spite of their partnership with Nokia, which was later purchased by Microsoft.

Traditional Desktop Ignored

Windows 7 was the last Windows version that truly provided the traditional desktop environment that folks had been using since the days of Windows 3.1 (1992–2001). As support for Windows XP expired, some moved to Windows 7 but many more moved to alternatives like Linux or the Mac while too many others stayed with XP in spite of the increased security risks.

Windows 10

Windows 10 contained some incredible new technology like holographic computing, the Cortana digital assistant and the Microsoft Edge browser.

More importantly, Microsoft restored gaming in Windows 10. Not only was Xbox included with Windows 10, but the initial setup featured games like Candy Crush.

Windows 10 could also be installed on Xbox, making a clear commitment to gaming.

Traditional Desktop Restored

Windows 10 interface was a bit of a hybrid, with a restored Start menu combined with Windows 8 style tiles but more configurable than Windows 8.1.

It provided a full desktop experience for traditional users (much like Windows 7) but allowed those that had moved to Windows 8's touch interface to continue using tablet mode.

Windows 7 Users Reluctant to Upgrade

It proved as difficult to move Windows 7 users to Windows 10 as it had been to get XP users to leave that system behind.

This probably motivated Microsoft's offer of a free upgrade to Windows 10 for Windows 7 and 8.1 as much as their desire to move to supporting only a single-version Windows environment.

As with Windows 8, many of the new technologies like holographics and 3D printing were not yet mature. Legacy Windows 7 hardware could be upgraded for free, but didn't support many of the most innovative features in the newer Windows 10.

Lack of Alternatives

It was only by ending support for Windows 7 that the Windows 10 user base began to reach the goals Microsoft anticipated for the year following Windows 10's release.

Even so, many have clung to Windows 7, just as users clung to XP years earlier and Windows 10 users are avoiding the costly hardware upgrades necessary to run Windows 11.

Apple and Linux Emerge

Microsoft has dominated the PC since the earliest IBM PCs were licensed exclusively with Microsoft DOS. You could install something else but still paid for the Microsoft DOS licence when you purchased a new PC because of a licensing agreement with manufacturers that provided significant discounts for exclusive use of Microsoft DOS.

Microsoft extended this monopoly into Windows 3.x and later versions.

Automatic Windows Upgrades a Thing of the Past

Microsoft's failing share of the market has allowed the Linux and Mac markets to grow. Many folks no longer “traded up” every time Microsoft launched a new version of Windows.

All these factors were probably involved in Microsoft's choice to move to the Modern Lifecycle starting with Windows 10.

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Portable Devices

How do portable devices factor into the future of the desktop?

Portable Devices Trend Adjusting

With tablets and smart phones emerging as the new, more portable alternative, the debate became more intense. Market penetration has increased rapidly but the North American market appears to be saturated.

Manufacturers like Apple and Samsung have faced slowing growth trends as the market of first-time tablet buyers shrinks just as the market of first-time PC buyers declined earlier.

Tablets Cost Less

Many user's budgets determine that they can buy one or the other. If their current PC is working okay, the tablet provides a portable alternative for less than the cost of a replacement PC.

As such, [the Apple iPad] was an ideal purchase for those who'd been paring back for more than a year and a half and were looking for a modest indulgence. Most people equate the 1930s with bread lines, but the decade also saw sales double for a new gadget called the radio.
— “Lesson of the iPad: In Tough Times, Treat Yourself,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, October 15, 2012

More recent tablets, particularly the Apple Pro series, have become as powerful as computers. Depending upon the sort of input used and your requirements the tablet could have many advantages, particularly for graphic artists using the Apple Pencil.

Many stores and services now employ tablet-based point-of-sale equipment rather than computers or traditional cash registers.

Most Still Have a Functioning PC

Most of the folks buying a tablet or signing up for a smart phone already have a desktop that allows them to do their taxes, create and print documents, scan, surf the Web and more. Even those that don't have a computer aren't as limited as they once were.

Both the desktop and mobile operating system market shares appear to be relatively flat.

The “Cloud” Enables Portable Computing

The emergence of cloud computing (see Moving into the “Cloud”) has made us less dependent upon local storage and has made our information available to us wherever we are — even when using smaller devices like smart phones and tablets.

More powerful mobile devices combined with Web apps have allowed software applications like tax software and office software to move onto mobile devices.

Web apps (software running on remote servers and accessed via apps or the browser) have made the transition to mobile computing much easier.

Corporations can put their agents into the field with tablets largely because they are supported by well-developed networks.

The reliability and security of cloud-based systems is varied.

Lack of Canadian Competition Raising Prices

Canadians now use much less data than users in other countries, largely because the cost of a reasonable amount of data is far from reasonable.

Most Canadian Internet providers are also raising the price of data usage. The Big Telecom is trying to shore up their declining profits in TV while facing threats from streaming services like Netflix. Online storage is pricey for Canadians in spite of the decline in the real cost to the provider.

Data plans for cellular networks are still far too expensive in Canada. Cellular plans costs far more than home-based Internet does (and obscenely more than basic cable television costs for similar bandwidth).

This was further aggravated by the purchase of Shaw by Rogers. While the Liberal government insisted it wouldn't affect competition, that has not been the case, especially in Western Canada.

Small Devices Bigger Security Issue

Universal access also increased the potential for hacking and accidental loss of your critical data (most non-corporate users don't retain local backups when using the cloud). They're warned about loss of local data but not the loss of cloud-based data.

Smart devices are smaller, portable and far easier to misplace. When a smart phone is lost or stolen you could lose important personal data (or worse, corporate data).

While you can remotely wipe such devices, you'd lose anything prior to the last backup or sync. Users may be reluctant to take this step.

California has passed a law requiring all new phones sold in the state to have remote wiping capability that would make them non-functional to remove their attractiveness for theft. That still doesn't take into account the reluctance to quickly wipe irreplaceable data.

The Corporate Market

Enterprise users indicated mixed prospects with only 24% even contemplating deploying Windows 8 during the early release days and most sticking with Windows 7 past its end of service. Windows 10 is faring somewhat better given the demise of Vista then Windows 7.

A significant factor for corporations is proprietary business software or hardware that was built for Windows XP or 7 and cannot migrate to Windows 10.

The Personal Market

What about the individual? Are the emerging systems sufficiently sophisticated to completely do away with traditional computers?

I've set up several clients with a simple tablet connected via a router and wireless printer. If all they are doing is email and surfing the Web, this combination meets their needs. They can still print documents and photos. The photographic capabilities are wonderful even compared to digital cameras only a few years older.

However, not everyone is a simple consumer of information.

The suitability of moving from a desktop (or laptop) computer to a tablet depends upon what your requirements are and how skilled you are with traditional and newer hardware.

There's probably a niche in your business, be it an enterprise or self-employment, for a desktop computer, particularly if you need high-powered hardware able to keep up with the intense demands of tasks like data science, video editing and design.

If you only access webmail and surf the Web (social media) you probably don't need a computer to do so. You certainly can't justify purchasing a more powerful one if you have a relatively recent model that does the job.

A tablet or smart phone will work just fine. Even if you can't afford the purchase price for a new computer you can still obtain a smart phone for “free” (the hardware cost is included with your monthly subscription fees).

Content Creators Need More Power

Those developing serious content are going to need something more robust — at least for the majority of their work. A tablet or smart phone may provide a necessary convenience, but will not replace the computer for most power users.

This is not necessarily true for graphic artists using the excellent drawing capabilities of high-end tablets.

As voice control improves and devices become more powerful this situation may reverse, but we're not quite there yet. Windows 10 has made huge strides in this area and it is probably only a matter of time before your “computer” is a tablet.

Tablets an Accessory for Power Users

I am still more productive with my Windows 10 desktop (upgraded from Windows 7 Pro). My laptop provides portability and is an excellent vehicle for online meeting software and onsite work.

I'm more focussed on creating content than watching it.

I have a sixth-generation iPad and sixth-generation iPhone. There is a lot that I can do with them, but they certainly haven't replaced my computer. The iPad Pro series shows promise, but costs much more than I paid for my laptop.

I suspect that most power users will require a decent laptop or desktop for the foreseeable future.

If you work with intensive applications like large spreadsheets, databases, image development, AutoCAD and similar programs most users find the desktop or laptop environment more suitable.

The ability to move to a tablet is becoming more realistic as these sorts of apps become more powerful and with the emergence of larger screens.

Changes like the improved availability of web apps like tax software and universal access to Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365) has made it much easier to imagine doing without a computer.

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Updated: March 1, 2024