/ 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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J.A.C.Martin says:
19 August 2011

Fifty years ago I was a Product Planner in IBM UK. We were playing about with voice recognition (something called Shoebox) but I don’t think we ever thought there would be a small computer in everybody’s home. When personal computers first appeared I had an Apple II and then a Sirius and the company then had a network of Apricots. They came with an operating system and nothing else. Everything on them I had put there myself: I knew where it was and what it did: and I even had a program which would run other programs. When Windows came out, I was completely lost, and to a certain extent I still am. There must be hundreds of files I don’t use/need/want but I don’t know which ones they are. However, I have just about got used to using Windows (7 on my nice new laptop), so please don’t tell me it is obsolete.

J.A.C.Martin says:
19 August 2011

Furthermore. I still have two desktop PCs but as I live half the year in France and half in UK, I got fed up transferring files, so I got a laptop which I use as a desktop with a mouse, and connect it to my local printer. Although I have BT’s broadband, in France it is so expensive I still use my old PC for the internet as the laptop requires wifi.

I think predictions about computers, especially when coming from IBM, should be taken with a pinch of salt.

After all in 1943, the then president of IBM [Thomas Watson] said: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers”.

Very much later, IBM were so sure that personal computers would never catch on in a big way that they nearly missed the boat and had to get a previously unknown organisation [Microsoft] to write the operating system for them.

Mind you it’s not just IBM who has been bad at predicting the future for computers; after all Ken Olsen [the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation] said in 1977: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home”.

Well Ken Olsen was right. Not everyone does need a home computer.

I believe that what he said was: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home”, in which case he probably did not consider that women would use them.

Steve says:
19 August 2011

PC everytime! Providing you have the space of course. keyboards are easier than on notebooks or mobile phones (my fingers are not the size of a pin!) All the bits in my PC can easily be replaced by me and I can add on anything I like with a usb port. I have a Samsung notebook but it has no CD/DVD drive wich is a pain in the neck. I agree with the writer who said about the assumption “everyone has” Not everyone has or can afford even a basic PC with internet connection yet everything seems to be driven by it from advertising to job applications its very dangerous.

Certainly not tablets or laptops (and definitely not phones) for me. I like a huge screen so it’s P.C for me at the moment. However, I can see PC’s being replaced by all singing all dancing t.v.’s though, which makes much more sense if they are cheap enough, but you’d need several in the home. The fight for the remote is bad enough!

Chris GB says:
20 August 2011

I think the PC will decline as the main computing device within households, simply because a lot of the things we used PCs for are now possible on smart phones, netbooks or laptops. I use a PC for work where writing and editing documents is a major part of the task. I also use the PC with Photoshop and digital camera software, particularly RAW file processing of 36MB RAW files, which takes a lot of computing heft if you don’t want to wait around for ages. For me the PC is the primary device.

However, many people just want to browse the web and use email / social network sites as their main activities. For these people the netbook or tablet is OK.

For me, the PC (Windows 7) with the 24″ 1920 x 1200 SIPS monitor is the power use tool, the netbook (running Ubuntu 11.04) is the properly portable computing I take to clients for light document editing and email, and the Dell Streak Android tablet / smart phone (now running Android 2.2.2) the everyday everywhere keep in touch device. With its clear 5″ screen, it does for email, text, phone, social networking, web browsing and internet radio (and plenty of other stuff). With the integrated Google services for calendar and contacts, synchronised with my other devices all in ones pocket, it is pretty nifty. For many people this would be good enough to be their only device.

The machine I found least useful was the laptop. With its 15″ screen and compromised processor, it was not big or powerful enough for “proper” work and too big to be easily portable. It got replaced by the netbook, which slips into my overnight bag with ease.


David S says:
20 August 2011

How can the laptop computer possibly die? If you want a full-size keyboard and a full-size screen you can add them to many of the hand-held devices currently on the market, but in so doing you have created your own desktop PC!

David S says:
20 August 2011

In previous post where I ask “How can the laptop computer possibly die?” please read instead “How can the DESKTOP computer possibly die?”. Showing my age here!

I think the PC will be around for a long time yet. Large screen, large memory, huge storage capacity
and fast multi-tasking processors provide function that iPads and smartphones cannot provide. As for Cloud computing, it will be a long time before I trust my data to an online database when companies like Sony and Nintendo have their databases hacked into.

No I will continue to store my data on my local drives and disconnect from the internet when I am not using my PC.
Smartphones and tabets are great for portability but for serious applications the PC has plenty of life left in it.

Kevin says:
20 August 2011

Wow, Do i really want my personal files on this on coming Cloud -Based computer??? No way !!!
There are enough problems with securty breaches at the moment !
This would be the Crimial World’s new Heavan !!!
Call me a Dinasor, but i will stick with my PC and it’s security software for some time to come !!!!

The big problem I see with desktops is that the Microsoft system has to be bought with a full license for each machine. That puts people off, and so they try Linux distributions or other machines that come bundled with other operating systems. If the operating system is free as with Linux, then its value for money is theoretically infinite. However this is not the whole story, because if it doesn’t do things the customers want, or the customers can’t easily set it up, there is still a cost in terms of time and frustration.

I have to say, that although Microsoft is expensive and it is not perfect, it is still more versatile and better than any of the present competition.

I have noticed that some Linux distributions come bundled already set up with a particular application in mind, such as the PVR version Mythbuntu. Thus you can use an old computer to record TV without upgrading. You may need a TV input card, but these can be bought new for of the order of £20 on Amazon or eBay these days.

If you have specific applications in mind, and they are available on Apple machines, then these do have a following. I am not really sure how the positivity their users express is based on facts or just fervour. I think there may be a risk that some “solutions” may be available on PCs but not Macs. Like Microsoft, they are expensive.

Unlike desktop PCs, there is only one source of components for Apple products, so they may also be more expensive to maintain. This also applies to laptops and netbooks and tablet computers, of whatever make. A replacement keyboard for a desktop costs of the order of ten to twenty pounds, whereas if the keyboard fails on a laptop, expect to pay upwards of seventy.

I shudder to think what happens to anyone with an expensive tablet that goes wrong. A sensible option for manufacturers would be to exchange free or at ex-factory cost (as do some opticians with expensive spectacles). But I would be quite surprised if this is what happens.

Has anyone here had an out of guarantee repair on a tablet? Or for that matter dropped it? I got quite worried when my wife waved hers around trying to get the starfinder program to work.

[Hi John, we’ve removed a small part of your comment due to legal reasons. Thanks, mods.]

Give me a 21st C machine that allows instant access to my large databases, allows easy typing of books, articles and security via a wired internet connection for banking. Add the need to listen to the test match whilst working at home, a large wide screen for multiple tasking of pages and I will change over from my 3 year old fast PC, which today can be replaced at a fraction of the cost of some of these 21st C machines.

Chris GB says:
20 August 2011

Thinking about this more and with reference to posted comments, the PC is still the only tool for the power user. Comfortable typing and a big enough screen are things a laptop is not really good enough for, which separates the laptop from the PC in terms of who it is optimised for. The thing to consider is why a buyer needs a PC. I need one for various activities that require big screens, big processing power and big storage. However, in the past, a lot of people had a PC at home for email and internet access, maybe to type the occasional letter. The laptop freed up space for many of these people, so they have their place as they are stowable when not in use. The netbook just takes this further. Once freed from the bloated resource gobbling mess that is Windows, netbooks are actually plenty fast enough to live with for most of the things that most people do. Smartphones are hobbled by having very small screens, but certainly you could live with it being your only device if all your tasks are relatively basic. Same goes for tablets which, with a Swype keyboard, are ok for much of what most people do.

Thing is, most people I know don’t have just one machine. Many have smartphones. The Android phone I use is a useful business tool. Typical home users now and in the future may well have a “smart” TV, a PC, a tablet or two and netbook / notebook hanging around the house. The demographic will evolve, the machines will evolve, the one thing that is for sure, based on current trends, is that connectivity and access to web based communication will continue to grow.

I would expect to see less households with PCs in the long term as people migrate to other more specialised data access and communication devices. The tablet is actually a handy gadget to have about too. For sure, there will always be a demand for PCs in both home and business, but anyone looking at something like the Motorolla Atrix can see that quite possibly the PC of the near future will consist of a monitor, keyboard and mouse with your smartphone doing the data crunching and media storage / access via some sort of dock or wireless system. HTCs latest dual core phone is faster than many laptops of recent times, and running small light and efficient operating systems will mean they are fast enough.

The 4G band, once freed up by the digital switchover, will allow decent data bandwidth on mobile devices, so one day soon, your media access will also go where ever you go. The only down side of this for the PC user is that as less people see the need to have a PC, the prices will rise as economies of scale decline. Me, I will keep plugging away on the big screen and full keyboard device, just that one day, I expect the core of that device to be pocket sized.

All change I reckon, same as it ever was in IT.


In the comfort of your own home with a good fixed line broadband connection, for me the larger screen and proper seating, posture and keyboard height etc, the PC or in my case a Mac still offers advantages, I had wondered about just using a laptop on my desk, but if you are doing a lot of keyboard work you wind up plugging in an external keyboard, mouse, screen, hard drive for backups, printer, scanner, which rather negates the advantage.

Away from home it should be a different story, but whether it’s a smart phone or tablet, cloud or hard drive based computing, the success or otherwise revolves around just one thing, is there a usable mobile internet connection of some sort? I have just returned from several weeks of work in Scotland, the internet connection in towns and cities was OK ish but lacking speed, and outside those areas as in England, at best a slow and frustrating experience at worst a complete waste of time.

I thought the idea of mobile computing was an always available, usable speed connection but we are a very, very long way from that outside major population areas, until that is resolved, if it ever is, mobile computing on any device is little more than a gimmick.

I have used a Pc for many years and I suppose a lot of people in the fifty plus age group find the same difficulty that I have mainly these portable devices aren’t easy to see the graphics when you become longsighted. I know you can get reading glasses, but if you are short sighted and you use one of these mobile devices I pad etc you have the situation where unless you have variofocal lenses you end up glasses on off situation in order to see on these small screens. I have an i pod touch and don’t get me wrong it is very useful when away to keep on top of your emails, but has anyone used one of these small devices to for example browse a sight like Money supermarket? I have and I find it hard going. I like a large screen maybe its an age thing. My son has a smartphone not for me a great device but I find it takes some getting use to and then a new one is brought out which will be more sophisticated.

When adaptive optics spectacles come onto the market in a decade or so, these problems with small tablet devices and the over 50s will go.
consists mainly of links to other web sites on this subject.

Well I touch type at about 45 words per minute and I use the PC mainly for inputting info, emailing, editing photos and posting to a forum. So if someone could invent a computing device that does all this well, I would buy it. Hang on a minute, full sized keyboard, large screen, it must be a PC and I’ve got one! (actually a high end laptop, but you get the point)

The new Smart Phones look useful, but I read that using them to
access the Internet in Europe can be prohibitively expensive.
Both SmartPhones and Tablets are useless in their current presentation
to someone with reduced grip.
Why don’t they have a grip at the rear? No a great innovation, my
old movie camera had one years ago.
A real keyboard is essential. I see ASUS advertising a laptop with
docking for a tablet.

Pete Massingham says:
28 August 2011

The whole computer, laptop, ipad, tablet, mobile phone markets are absolutely filled with hype and nonsense. People have been conditioned over the years to believe that they must have as many gadgets as possible for their lives to be functional. It just is not the case! There is a growing number of people who do not aquire any of these things and get on just fine in life! So, while HP is pulling out of the PC market, it really isn’t a big deal unless you have invested heavily in and become dependent on the system. Lets keep things in perspective. These things are great tools but are essentially a designers and manufacturers dream for making easy money. No decent profit – no business. They are not really interested in what you or I want or need. I own Apple gear – essentially because years ago, I was told it was better for visual applications! Apple systems been both good and bad over the years but I still detest the fact that they force you to use essentially their own program software when the field of software and hardware technology is so massive. People have become obsessed with computing gear! You not only see people wandering around with their mobile fixed to their ear, or in hand and frantically texting, but you now see people using tablets or i-pads in places like resturants and bars – is there nowhere that we do not need to be connected!!?? People need to reappraise their priorities and get control of their lives again! Life is not just about having access to technology – indeed it is arguably a very limiting activity.

Tablet computers using email answer the following points:

One of the fundamental problems with voice telephone is that it is intrusive on those around you, which is why cell phones in public places are detested by many people. In addition, any form of telephone will interrupt a person to person conversation in a manner that is considered impolite if a new person were to join the group in so demanding a way. And the telephone call centre where people can be tied up listening to music and lies for some considerable time before they are answered is appalling. (If you call is important to them, they’d provide a number that rings in an office.)

The tablet computer, on the other hand, provides a means to queue messages not people. If two or more people are in a conversation and someone sends one of them an email, they can answer it when the conversation is over. If someone wants to send a busy company a message they can send it and then carry on with whatever else they want to do until someone at the company replies.

A desktop computer can do all of this, but like the old fashioned telephone, it is tied to the desk with wires. Many people want to be in different places all the time away from their desks, so this is not a practical solution, so they relied on voice mobile telephones. Now with tablet computers, they can dispense with the disadvantages of the telephone, even if they are sitting in traffic jams or in waiting rooms. (Neither telephones or tablets should be used if they are driving. Bad news over even a hands free telephone could still cause a road traffic accident.)