/ Technology

Is the PC dead?

Last Friday saw the 30th anniversary of the humble Personal Computer. And now an IBM engineer, who worked on its design, says that the desktop PC’s days are numbered. That’s news to me.

Writing on IBM’s Smarter Planet Blog, Dr Mark Dean says ‘when I helped design the PC, I didn’t think I’d live long enough to witness its decline’.

Plus, Software-as-a-Service pioneer Duane Jackson agrees, seeing the decline of PCs to be coinciding with the death of CDs and DVDs.

Personally, I think talk of the PC’s decline or a post-PC era is much exaggerated. Sales of PCs were still rising in the second quarter of this year, albeit by a modest 2.3%, according to analyst Gartner.

Windows 7 is also showing signs of success for Microsoft, with Gartner predicting that 94% of new PCs shipped in 2011 will run it – that’s 635 million new PCs running Windows 7.

The PC is facing competition

I’m not denying that the traditional desktop PC has competition. The number of Macs shipping has risen, proven that we’re much more open to choice than we used to be. And that’s something which will give heart to companies who’ve come late to the party, such as Google and its Chrome OS.

Chrome is part of a trend towards “cloud computing” which, while it hasn’t changed the world yet, is set to redefine the traditional PC. Cloud-based computing relies on you accessing services and software from a remote server (essentially a big computer) rather than from your PC’s own hard disk.

Other devices are giving the PC a run for its money, too. In the second quarter of 2011 almost 429 million mobile phones were sold; 25% of these being smartphones. And these are basically miniature computers – you can email, take photographs, make movies, run multiple applications, check your social network and more…

Tablets aren’t the answer

And who could forget the tablet, epitomised by Apple’s iPad. If you believe the hype the iPad is the best thing since the PC, if not sliced bread. Even Mark Dean’s primary computer is a tablet.

But can you really replace PCs with a tablet or smartphone?

For me the answer is ‘no’. The reason being that the primary thing I do with my computer is type. The iPad’s onscreen keyboard is one of the best around but it can’t compare to the physical QWERTY I’m used to.

As well as letting me type documents, there’s enough room to store my music collection, photographs going back five years. And no-one can dispute that a PC is significantly more powerful than any of the tablet’s on the market.

Maybe I’m stuck in the past, but I love my PC and I suspect I’m not alone. I think Mark Dean will have to wait quite some time yet before he finally witnesses its demise.

What do you use as your main computing device?

Desktop PC (59%, 1,088 Votes)

Laptop/Notebook (28%, 509 Votes)

Mac (10%, 179 Votes)

Tablet (2%, 30 Votes)

Smartphone (1%, 18 Votes)

Netbook (0%, 9 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,832

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The PC is far from dead but it is gradually being replaced by alternatives, as Sarah has mentioned.

Most people first encountered PCs at work and then bought a home machine. Now that people are more aware of technology, the reverse can apply and employees are pushing their employers to provide the with the latest electronic devices.

Many companies provide smartphones. The iPad was seen by many as a toy and for home use. Now it and other tablet computers have established themselves as useful tools in many organisations.

It is really time for organisations that provide employees with Windows XP and Internet Explorer 6 to move into the 21st century.

Many of us are retired and are therefore not given these “new gadgets”. I was introduced to the PC when I was working and have no intention of changing over to a “21st century progress item” as I do not need or want one. It does seem to me that this “progress” being hawked around is to increase their sales of new appliances. Like the cheque book I am quite happy as I am. – Long live the PC!

I have not suggested that any home user should give up using a PC, but it is evident that there is a strong demand for portable and convenient computing devices.

The wristwatch became popular because it was convenient and saved the need to find a clock. Fewer people use watches now because they can check the time on their phone.

With computers and portable computing devices there is a lot of choice at the moment, but we may have to work hard (as discussed in other Which? Conversations) to keep the cheque book.

I am celebrating twenty-one years of using a desktop PC – first at work and then also at home. I am not really interested in any alternative because it does all I need it to [and a lot more]. I cannot even see myself wanting to use a laptop let alone anything smaller. The only thing that worries me when looking ahead into the technological future is the incredible assumption by government and other organisations that we shall all want to continue using a PC or some other device until the day we die; steadily all the alternative means of transacting are being removed or made prohibitively expensive and nobody seems to be gainsaying this.

I can beat you by about three years but what is much more significant to me is that I have used Macs for nearly 20 years. I have no love for Apple but my experience with PCs was an unpleasant experience between BBC Micros and Mac computers, which were always fun to use.

Sarah – You are absolutely right and the problem with excluding the elderly was discussed in another Which? Conversation: https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/who-is-supporting-our-silver-surfers/comment-page-1/#comments

We do need choice, whatever our age and abilities. Some people avoid using computers for banking and other financial transactions because of concerns about security. We have to consider the disabled. Even people who are very comfortable using computers often need to discuss things, and in the case of insurance this can be very important.

Having said all that, we live in exciting times and many people do enjoy the benefits of the latest computer technology, which is fast moving away from being a big and screen on the desk.

I started with a BBC Micro in 1984 and went through various evolutions of computers until I managed to buy my first PC in the early 90s (an 80286 processor running Windows 3). It did’t take long before Windows for Workgroups came along and with a bit of persuasion had work start using PCs in a Token Ring network.

The IT world has come a long way since then!

The trouble with the latest versions of software, especially Microsoft products, is that they are full of security loop-holes and other ‘glitches’ that make them really quite unsafe for use in a business environment where such issues often leave the business owner vulnerable to prosecution under the Data Protection Act.
By the time the ‘glitches’ have all been fixed and the security issues resolved there is a new verso of the software and it all starts again.
But as for the PC itself, I think it’s days are very numbered as people want smaller, more portable, multi-function devices.

The vulnerabilities are far from new. Software has always been open to attacks. The problem is the increase in extremely clever computer nerds whose life never leaves the confines of their bedrooms abusing the Internet to attack people’s property.

This has NOTHING to do with Microsoft and ALL software suffers the same problem whether Microsoft, Apple, Linux, Google, etc. Do you think that Microsoft let the News of the World hack celebrity mobiles?

Focussing on a smaller screen gives me a headache
Trying to type on a screen gives me RSI
Not having a comfortable working environment gives me RSI, headaches and a bad back.

So no, the PC still has a long long way to go as it has taken us this long just to work out how to use them without breaking our backs.

Like smoking, extreme sports and fatty foods, we should ban the ipads as they will be taking too much out of the NHS due to new back conditions which take years of treatment to fix. 🙂

Dave H says:
16 August 2011

An interesting article but think the writers mind was on the recent riots at the end! Mark Dean helped design the PC, Mark Duggan was the man whose shooting triggered the riots.

Whoops! Well spotted Dave, an odd error that has now been corrected. I think the riots took a lot of our attention over the past week or two! Thanks.

Steven says:
16 August 2011

I’ve been using PC’s since 1987 and have to say the last year has been a very interesting one as far as new devices is concerned. My team and I maintain a large and complex academic network, providing the back-end for various services, which will remain untouched by the changes in the user facing products. Like many this year, I’ve started using an iPad 2 and have to say that for many tasks it really is excellent and so accessible. If I was to commence using the iPad in anger at work, I’d probably purchase an Apple keyboard or keyboard-dock to provide me with a full QWERTY keyboard for use at a desk. I do believe many have got this right when they say that the pad devices are a game-changer. At the moment the only thing I thing is lacking it a method of using the pad for graphical design and precise placement, I’m sure this will be resolved within a few revisions – it look a long time for PC’s to evolve the keyboard->joystick->trackball->mouse->touchpad interface devices.

On a more lighthearted note, like the mobile phone (Star-Trek Original Series) the iPad was forseen on Star-Trek The Next Generation. 🙂 I’m looking forward to evolving pointy ears or a bumpy head.

By the way, I’d rather be lounging on a beanbag doing some work on my iPad, than sat at a desk, getting RSI from my keyboard and mouse, unfortunately I don’t get the choice. ;P

We can’t have university staff sitting around on beanbags when students will be paying £9,000 a year. Stand to attention and work out why the students cannot access the university VLE on their latest mobile device. 🙂

Hector Macduff says:
16 August 2011

I rely on a desktop PC for internet banking so much so that I need a netbook for back up just in case the desktop goes u/s.

Naomi Johnson says:
16 August 2011

I hope the PC isn’t dead – I personally find it far easier to look at a larger screen than that available on smartphones and iPads (not that I own a tablet as yet) –

and may I just point out that your social sharing icons at the top of this page are almost invisible (off the left side of my 17″ screen) – managed to tweet the article but all i could see was “eet”!!

What’s ‘humble’ about the desktop computer? My five-year-old iMac is anything but. And no, the desktop is not dead.

The PC still has many years of life in it. Laptops have closed the gap in performance, but it you want versatility, upgradeability and performance, the PC is still leagues ahead. New PCs are smaller, have lower power demands, greater screen quality and size, greater performance and are easily upgraded.

Tablets and smart phones make great mobile communicators. Their performance is improving all the time and with next generation of Windows/Chrome/Ubuntu and greater range of processors in the pipeline, they will make computing on the go a pleasure.

Perhaps it is Laptops and Netbooks that are in danger extinction as tablets and smart phones leap ahead.

David M says:
16 August 2011

I agree that, in the medium term, the PC as we know it will become extinct. As tablets become more powerful and highly featured, they will be the ‘do anything anywhere’ device, with add-ons like keyboards for finger dancers, and users won’t segregate their activities onto different platforms. Mind you, in this context extinct probably means there’ll only be a few hundred million still in use.

The long term? Who can tell? Maybe greater integration of technology with our bodies. Maybe our thoughts will be directly transferred to the computing device (no more finger dancing). Around the Year2000 various clever techies and great thinkers were asked what the next century would bring. What they appeared to have in common was a distinct lack of imagination.

My first ‘PC’ was an Apple Lisa that I used primarily to access a character based email system running on a Dec10 in Canada, linked via satellite. I remember colour screens coming out (never catch on – who needs colour in this asynchronous world?). I also believed in the inch/foot/yard divide (phone/PC/TV) and that we wouldn’t want to mix them. HA! What do I know?

I hope you knew to keep the Apple Lisa, since these machines are now worth a fortune.

I think it’s horses-for-courses. I’ve just bought myself a new PC (only the tower) and am changing from XP on my old PC to W7 on the new one. I use it for my business spreadsheets and typing as well as surfing the net and e-banking. I started using a PC at work in the 80’s, it was painful!

I also have a smartphone (HTC Wildfire S) which I’ve had for a couple of months. I surf the net on it but not as much as I do on the PC; I much prefer a big screen, it’s kinder on my 59 year-old eyes 😉


As the above survey shows, a Desktop computer (mac or PC) still rules the world of computing.

I like a beefy unit, with 2 monitors and a kickbutt graphics card; no laptop matches it, or manages to drive the size monitors I have.

I also hate finger touch screens, I have severe dry skin and the feeling is awful – gimme a BIG mouse instead for my man-size hands and a proper keyboard, not those tiny laptop things, terrible to attempt to type on.

As for tablets – they have limited use. If you throw away the gimmicky sides, they only have a few demo style real uses, hardly worth the ridiculous cost and they advertise themselves to villains.
might as well have “Steal me” written on them.

The PC isn’t dying out, big businesses want you to think that and “move with the times” to storing everything on remote servers instead of your own hard drive.
Which opens the door to more profits and business for them – instead of calling up windows explorer for your external hard drive, you have to use a portable device (which you will upgrade every other time a new/different model comes out) which will connect to THEIR servers (charging you for connection and storage on a monthly basis).
Factor in the benefits to business of you operating a device where you cannot see where your clicks are taking you or which company is making money from you or dropping cookies etc.

My second hand PC is now 12 years old, hasn’t had an upgrade, doesn’t have a mega graphics card, yet amazingly, still does the job of “surfing” very well, allows me to pay bills and annoy people in general with my rants.

I would agree, that alternatives to using the internet for bill paying, banking, etc, should remain free to the user, its becoming a closed shop.
I’d also like to see one company – one product – one price, it is not fair to charge different prices for the same thing because you bought it on the web instead of over the telephone. This leads to misrepresentation and exploitation of the customer, in part, because of demographically using your own data against you.

I agree with the premise that PCs are no where near dead.

I’ve been using PC’s since the first BBC A in 1980 (I think) – Main Frame and Minis Computers since 1950’s. Tried the Mac but didn’t like the design (no cheap way to upgrade – similar problem to the BBC) The 186 allowed me to build and upgrade machines to my heart’s content..The later machines giving me vast storage space, RAM, and high definition graphics.

Ran a large network. Have a fairly extensive network at home – (four towers and four laptops) I enjoy using them daily. Dislike Tablets ever since the early days of the Psion (still have one) – too small for use – I want a much larger screen for graphic representation and a keyboard and I consider wireless still far too insecure for daily use.

I teach computing at a Pensioners Club – the vast majority can cope with laptops or desktops but not tablets as being too finicky to use or even see.- So I think they are rejecting the Tablet as being too small.

The only time that the PC may start to die out is when the Tablet is able to communicate intelligently and vocally with the user to do away with the keyboard – and do everything graphically the large PC can do – as well as use a largish 30cm x 24 cm folding screen as a minimum. This will be a long time coming.

Long live the PC!!

My wife recently bought an iPad and we found it could never be a PC substitute. Its email client proved not to suit our ISP, and there were no means to adjust its settings to match. There is still webmail, of course. My wife writes books and could never write one on the iPad.

However it will be useful for access to the web when away from home and for showing people photographs. It will also use Skype, but the service appears limited compared to a desktop. It can be a substitute for a number of separate items, such as an ebook reader, stand alone skype telephone, and starfinder. These three would make up over half the price of the product, and you still have other applications as well.

Hopefully your ISP will sort out the problem, or they will not be very popular. Life is too short to mess around with webmail.

I would agree with the comment about webmail. Often it is so slow that it misses characters typed in if you are not careful, which even makes logging on a major exercise..

We have been in contact with both Plus Net and Apple help services, neither of which have been able to sort out the problem. The only solution is for engineers from both companies to discuss it with each other and resolve it.

It is absolutely pointless trying to do it via customers and helplines.

As Plus Net is small fry compared to Apple it would seem very difficult to achieve this, unless there are enough Plus Net customers with consumer organisations who can rattle Plius Net’s cage sufficiently. It is no good shouting at telephonists on help lines, they have no say in the matter.

If there is anyone on this list who has got both a late model iPad and uses Plus Net and can make the two work, for goodness sake tell Plus Net!

We have now been advised by the Plus Net help service that they are passing the suggestion that their engineers discuss this with Apple back to management. Whether it actually happens and whether Apple are interested in helping remains to be seen. Both are good companies, so here’s to hoping!

Someone from PlusNet is already looking into this:


Best of luck.

Many thanks for that. I had seen that page before, but never noticed the subtle difference between SMTP on the iPad settings and that for PCs.

On PCs, the POP is filled in as “account+name” and the password for the name and the SMTP is filled in as “account+name” and the password for the name – both the same, on fact.

On the iPad, instead fill the SMTP in as “account” and the password for the whole account

I was concerned that this would result in everything going back to postmaster, but it didn’t, it went back to the name as in the receive emails settings.

So this appears to solve the Plus Net problem for iPads.

I have advised Plus Net to include this information on its main web page alongside the setting for the iPod mobile telephone.

Nevertheless, to address the main topic of this article, there are still a lot of things a PC can do that a tablet can’t. The iPad is an amazing product, but I suspect that desktops will always have the edge as technology advances.

John Ryan says:
17 August 2011

The PC is not dead yet – but it has finally got some serios competition, and is definely I decline.

Personally I think the PC in the office is guaranteed a future for at least the next 20 years. However, for the consumer – for people at home who want to catch up on the iPlayer, read eMails or update Facebook or even read a book, a magazine or play a game. The iPad (or tablet) will be the way to go.

Personally I’ve had an iPhone for 2 years, and an iPad for about 12 months, and I’d have to say – the last laptop I bought was probable the last laptop I’ll ever buy.

This really is an astonishing device. I gained my degree in computing in 1984, and I’ve seen IT develop from Punch Cards, to 12 inch (floppy)’ floppy disks, to the Internet on an iPhone.

I honestly believe, the tablet computer is a big a change as anything we’ve see so far.

The PC is dead! Long live the iPad.

John says:
18 August 2011

In what context do you mean is the PC dead?
As a home user – yes, the replacements (tablets, phones) are more than adequate for my needs. A laptop (still a PC) is useful for the other things you cannot do easily on a tablet – write a letter and then it print out etc.
For businesses – no. The desktop is king. It is tied to a desk making it so much easier to manage.

Desktops/ laptops will never die. It’s a question of what’s in the box.

We are increasingly finding that Windows is no longer cost-effective. So desktops are gradually migrating to Macs to run OS/X which, though more expensive initially, is less expensive log term if you value your time. This is simply a matter of better engineering but it will take many years for the majority to appreciate.

Having said that, the Windows and MS Office habit is extremely hard to kick. So those who’ve switched but still work with Win apps and Office users typically also run Windows on their Macs, not as the main option but as a reserve to be used when needed. I like Parallels for this because Win and OS/X apps co-exist, share files and allow cut and paste etc. There’s no rebooting if some file arrives that your normal office suite can’t read. Talking of which, my normal suite is now OpenOffice, despite the existence of cloud-based apps which I also use when appropriate.

I see I did mention tablets and phones yet. Those are great too but not for heavy use. This could change when tablets have companion keyboards. Phones with built-in projectors, when they arrive, could also have wider application.

I find a desktop PC essential as I’m into photography and music so I have 3 hard disks with photos and music, a webcam, a card reader c*m USB hub for items I may want to use e.g .a camera. That’s all easy to do if you have a PC with say 10 USB ports rather than a notebook with 2 or3. You can also have a bigger monitor with a bigger screen, which is easier to read text on.That monitor can be a TV if you have an aerial input.