Is the Desktop PC Dead?
Desktops might not have the glitz and glamor of ultra-portable laptops, but they're still essential for work.
A Look at the Future of Computing
This page is a look at the historical decline in desktop PC usage.
Then a Pandemic Came
Interestingly enough, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the trends away from computers, at least temporarily. Laptops, not desktops are involved.
Some people have declared that the desktop computer is finished.
Of course we're in a post-PC world.
— Ray Ozzie, Microsoft's former chief software architect
There has been a huge increase in mobile computing, particularly tablets and smart phones, while desktop PC sales have stagnated.
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.
Moore's law is an observation and projection of a historical trend.
As a result, computer sales were brisk year after year.
Technology Still Growing
While technology was still advancing, it was less compelling.
Most people running Windows XP were perfectly happy with what they had.
[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.
With a stable desktop, many people chose laptops because of the portability. Not only had the performance improved, but the cost had decreased significantly.
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:
- Most people in North America that wanted a computer already had one (or several) in their homes.
- The breakneck pace of PC development had slowed. Most computer users already had everything they needed.
- Free or inexpensive wireless Internet access was being provided everywhere, releasing the user from their home- or business-based Internet.
- Laptops were affordable and their improved capabilities were sufficient to replace desktop computers for all but power users.
The rate of PC purchases naturally declined but the PC itself was not dead.
Windows 8 Missed the Boat
Windows 8 was released during the last days of XP support. Most people were 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 introduced 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 Windows 8's expensive touch screen technology.
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.
- Most Windows 8 computers didn't have a touch screen, but Windows 8 was optimized for touch.
- The touch desktop launched by default, which instantly annoyed all the folks comfortable with the traditional desktop.
- Veteran Windows users were asked to abandon all they had learned about computers since Windows 3.1.
Microsoft was more focused on their own ambitions than truly meeting the needs of their customers.
Not the First Time
Microsoft wasn't the first to make this mistake.
IBM didn't consider the PC a serious competitor to their mainframe computer systems. Rather than take the offer to purchase Microsoft's DOS operating system, they chose instead to licence it. That and some other miscalculations ensured Microsoft's success at IBM's expense.
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 on the built-in mail, maps and search applications.
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 in spite of the Microsoft dominance in the PC market.
The Microsoft Store which, developed for the Microsoft Phone, was to become a component of Windows 10.
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 when PC sales slumped after the tech bubble burst in 2000.
Gabe Newell, managing directory of Valve (a videogame 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 that whole year's 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.
Certainly mobile devices have become ubiquitous, but not everyone has abandoned computers.
Could Something Else Be at Work?
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.
Microsoft 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.
They 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 contained some incredible new technology like holographic computing, the Cortana digital assistant and the Microsoft Edge browser.
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.
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.
- Windows 10 finally overtakes Windows 7 as favorite desktop OS in January 2019.
- Over a third of Windows users are clinging to Windows 7, though support ends in one year.
- Windows 7 versus Windows 10: Here comes the big push.
- Why a bit of fast talking could save the PC from disaster.
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
All these factors were probably involved in Microsoft's choice to move to the Modern Lifecycle with Windows 10.
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.
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 aren't as limited as they once were without a computer.
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.
The reliability and security of cloud-based systems is varied.
- Cloud-based software is dependent upon the company providing the remote service unlike software installed on your own computer.
- Mobile apps are far more diverse and fail more frequently, often because small or independent developers don't have the experience or resources to support a large number of users.
- The number, frequency and extent of reported (and unreported) data breaches (hacks) in the cloud makes it unattractive for sensitive or critical data.
- The 16 hour Outlook and Hotmail shutdown in March 2013 demonstrated the effects of a temporary disruption in cloud services.
- When Google discontinued a number of their services, users dependent upon those services suddenly found themselves without other options.
- In May, 2019, CrashPlan by Code42 suddenly deleted client historical backups, leaving many without critical business backups or years of historical data.
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 like Netflix. This is making online storage pricey 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).
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.
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 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 iPhones, iPads and similar devices, you'd lose anything prior to the last backup or sync. Users may be reluctant to take this step because of the cost of these devices.
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
Corporations can put their agents into the field with tablets largely because they are supported by well-developed networks.
Enterprise users indicated mixed prospects with only 24% even contemplating deploying Windows 8 during the early release days and most sticking with Windows 7. 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.
Can We Do Without Traditional PCs?
So, can we do without the desktop computer?
That depends upon what you're using the computer for.
PCs Lasting Longer
I don't read “the death of the PC” into the trend towards tablets.
This technology offers portability but doesn't yet replace the power of a PC. Truly powerful portable devices an as-yet unfulfilled promise slowed down by high cost of both the higher-quality devices and cellular data as well as the relative clumsiness of on-screen keyboards.
That is quickly changing.
It Depends Upon the User's Requirements
There's a big difference between posting on Facebook and creating a commercial document.
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.
Web Apps Help the Transition
The ability to edit documents online via Google Docs or Microsoft 365 as well as the massive move to webmail (Gmail, Outlook.com) has made the move to a mobile device much more attractive.
Mobile Devices Not Upgradable
Not everyone is willing or needs to continually upgrade their computer. That said, tablets have a relatively shorter lifespan since they cannot be upgraded (you're stuck with the technology you bought).
This limitation is exasperated by the relatively-short support window for mobile devices.
Laptops are more limited in their upgradability than desktops, but some upgrades are possible even if it means using external add-ons. Not so with mobile devices.
Casual Use & Social Networks Not As Demanding of Hardware
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.
Can You Move to a Tablet?
Do intensive applications like large spreadsheets, databases, image development, AutoCAD and similar programs run well enough on tablets to allow you to leave your desktop or laptop behind?
It depends (and “yes” is getting closer).
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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