Is the PC Doomed?

According to a recent survey by International Data Corporation (IDC), PC sales had the biggest slump since records began in 1994. Shipments dropped by almost 14% in Q1 2013 compared to the previous year. Cue doom-laden stories from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, ABC News, Business Insider and the BBC with subsequent share price drops for Microsoft, Intel and HP.

The meltdown has been attributed to factors including the continuing recession and a poor reception for Windows 8, but the primary reason was highlighted by ABC News:

The ailing personal computer market is getting weaker, and it’s starting to look as if it will never fully recover as a new generation of mobile devices reshapes the way people use technology.

So we can conclude that people have started to shun personal computers … in favor of portable personal computing devices. Why is this a major news event?

The survey indicated more than 76 million PCs were sold in the first three months of 2013 and the industry is on target to sell 300 million by the end of the year. In addition, tablets should account for a further 200 million sales. Is half a billion units a decline?

The real story here is the viability of tablet and smartphone devices combined with increased reliance on cloud computing. Most people are data consumers; if you’re browsing information or sending short messages, a portable tablet with a simpler OS, long battery life and online collaboration makes a lot of sense.

That said, I attempted to write this article on a tablet and it’s a painful experience; an on-screen keyboard, small display and awkward text selection makes me long for my PC. Data production requires a more suitable device and let’s not forget a tablet is a secondary computer for many people.

The news would have been more concerning were portable machines significantly less expensive. If anything, a decent tablet or smartphone cost more than a mid-range laptop. Perhaps the only commercial concern is the extended life of PCs. Component reliability, cloud processing and alternative computing options result in a reduced incentive to upgrade as frequently. However, this must be offset against users owning multiple gadgets.

The most we can gather from this news is that mainstream computing habits are changing. A PC may still be necessary for “real” work, but a tablet or smartphone is useful for surfing the web, analyzing reports, sending short messages, reading eBooks, listening to music and watching videos. Device contexts have changed; not sales.

The good news for web developers: we don’t care what people choose to use (or shouldn’t — take note anyone who neglects to test multiple browsers!). A decade ago, desktop developers could target a single OS (Windows) and guarantee operation on most computers. In today’s mountainous computing landscape, developers must target multiple versions of Windows, Mac OS, iOS and Android to have the same degree of coverage.

Fortunately, the web offers a cross-platform standard (HTML5) with comparatively simple mobile support (responsible design). Perhaps the PC will die, but personal computing combined with web technology has a bright future.

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  • http://searchcyberspace.net Thomas Oeser

    I don’t the PC is dying, I think that people just don’t need to upgrade as much anymore.
    I still see people using windows XP on their laptop and they’re happy with that, so why should they upgrade?

    • http://www.zavida.com/coffee Zavida Coffee

      Couldn’t agree more! There are way too many different applications and industries that depend on the existence of personal computers versus tablets and mobile devices. Web professionals, architects, software engineers etc. The list goes on..

      Long live the PC!

  • http://paulwp.com Paul

    I totally agree on the consumer vs producer comparison. Most people don’t have the use for a PC. They’re much better off with something that is much less complex to use, doesn’t require you to think about things like virus/malware protection, troubleshooting, maintenance, etc…

    I think the PC sales will continue to fall, and will probably become used by a minority of people who need the flexibility and power offered by this type of device for professional reasons.
    As a web developer, I don’t see myself using a tablet as my main device anytime soon.

    That being said, you can get decent keyboards for tablets nowadays, have you tried?

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      That’s the thing with tablets. Add a little more power, a multi-tasking OS and a keyboard and what do you have? A laptop!

      I’ve not tried any tablet keyboards recently but my last look led me to believe you can either get horrible cheap devices on eBay or need to spend $100 on an overpriced branded model. Very little in between.

  • http://r.je Tom B

    I think part of the problem is the lack of innovation in the PC. During the 90s and first half of the 2000s, PC technology vastly increased year on year. PCs got faster and faster, capable of more and more. In the last 3-4 years the technology has somewhat stalled. A PC bought today isn’t noticeably better than a PC bought 4 years ago. Look at CPUs, 4 years ago in 2009 I bought a mid level CPU of the time: Intel i7 920. Today, there is still nothing which is much of an upgrade in benchmarks let alone real world applications.

    I’m not sure a lack of PC sales is due to the rise of the tablet. There is just no reason for people to upgrade.

  • Jon

    Until a better alternative comes along for development then there will still be a market for the PC. The casual user may move over to tablets and phones but hardcore PC gamers and developers will still need a desktop PC (Windows, Linux or Apple) to do their every day job.

    (I include designers, animators, 3D model artists etc. as well as gamers/devs)

  • Evan

    A decline in new PC sales doesn’t mean PCs are doomed… It means people now have less of a need to replace or upgrade their existing PCs (which is not a bad thing actually).

    PCs have not lost their place. Unless you find that people do not (want to) own PCs anymore. Personally, nor my smartphone nor my tablet have replaced the use and value of my laptop.

  • Michael Morris

    This “The PC is dying” is so much Chicken Little sky is falling nonsense it’s pathetic. Especially since it ignores the real reason for the slowdown – market saturation and lack of advancement.

    My parents use my previous computer I bought almost 7 years ago – it’s a Pentium 4 with a dual core. For their purposes (email, browsing, video) it’s still plenty good enough. It’s running the full 4GB the motherboard can support and has an SSD now but is otherwise the same computer I got.

    Meanwhile I built a computer 2 years ago this summer which is my main gaming rig and nothing has yet pushed it into using more than 50% of resources.

    The PC market is slowing down because the older PC’s aren’t going away. Windows 8 actually has less strict hardware requirements than Windows 7. Since PC’s don’t have moving parts they don’t wear out they’ve been capable of the majority use case for awhile now. The used PC market is thriving.

    Tablets are a new market, cell phones take more abuse due to environment and are still, computationally, growing, so they roll over entirely on about a 2 year cycle. So they will have higher sales. PC sales are coming out of a bubble, but they are going to settle down comfortably. Manufacturers are going to have to accept that they will end up selling much like cars – enthusiasts and gamers are the only ones who will buy the new or nearly new ones, everyone else will buy the used rigs of that market set. The purchasers in this secondary market will only be making about one purchase every ten years or so, and even the first set will only switch out every pair of years.

    But that also depends on the games industry pushing the bleeding edge, which they aren’t doing. My bleeding edge box from two years ago still hasn’t met the game it can’t run at max resolution with all options turned on. Perhaps they Xbox 360 and PS3 are to blame for that retardation of the market though – games need to hit a wide market which means they need to work on consoles.

    • Mark Love

      Actually, solid state components do wear out over time, especially if they’re not well cooled.
      That said, I agree with the rest of your post. Once you’ve got 3 or more cores at 3ghz, there’s not much need to upgrade your basic platform until it does wear out and start getting flakey.

  • http://www.SirBudProductions.com/ Mike Becvar

    Car sales are down, therefore, cars are doomed. People will soon stop driving their cars. Or, the economy is down, and people are keeping their expensive items longer. Getting an extra year out of something they might have replaced every 2-3 years. It is fairly easy to keep a computer until it comes time to upgrade the OS to a new version.

    While I might check facebook and my email on my smart phone, I can’t see myself giving up a larger monitor and keyboard for the compact size of a smart phone or event a tablet. Neither are good for long term work. Sure, maybe the day will come when I just dock my phone like people onced used a docking station for a laptop when they got to the office, but I don’t think we are there yet. Anyone who needs to write long documents, edit photos, or play games will want a full size monitor and input device. Microsoft and Apple may be replaced, but the desktop computer will stay for years to come.

  • Tomica Korac

    And a note to Craig: You’ve just neglected the use of fastest growing OS – Linux! If we exclude Android, that is :-)

    • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

      Hmm, OK, but Linux has been the “fastest growing OS” for many years and it’s yet to hit mainstream usage on the desktop. Don’t get me wrong — I like Linux and have several distros installed — but it’s never had the success it deserved. Its main hope is mobile Linux-based OSs: Android, ChromeOS and FirefoxOS.

      • Alexander DiMauro

        One of the issues with Linux is the attitude behind it. I was once on a Rails course for beginners, and the instructor had posted installation instructions for Mac and Windows, so I tried to post some helpful tips for Linux from my experience trying to install Rails. And someone replied saying, and I quote: “Linux users are expert users…”, telling me, basically, that my instructions are not necessary, how could I even THINK of posting Linux instructions! So, apparently, anyone who touches Linux is suddenly, magically, automatically an expert! After much internal debate, I decided not to respond since I hate getting into arguments with big egos…

        I’ve see it in books, too, where they write step-by-step instructions for Mac and Windows, then for Linux say something like: “You know the drill…” and give no instructions.

        Canonical tried to change this, and it’s gotten better over the years, but this attitude, I believe, has made it difficult and even intimidating for ‘newbies’ to move to Linux.

      • http://www.brothercake.com/ James Edwards

        I think that’s something of a circular argument. Anyone who’s not a computer expert is reluctant to move to Linux because you don’t get any help with anything, even simple tasks like upgrading an app require relatively advanced knowledge, so you just can’t function in Linux unless you know what you’re doing.

        You seem to suggest that it’s that attitude which gives rise to the original problem. But isn’t it also the problem which gives rise to that attitude? ie. it’s a circular thing, a vicious circle, and it can’t ever be broken unless Linux has ambitions to be a consumer OS.

        Which it can’t ever have because it’s not a constrainable commercial product like Windows and Mac OS.

        This is why commercial-software is invariably better than open-source. The difference between a product for techs and a product for consumers is time spent refining, user-testing, sweating over details and providing endless help guides. Nobody has the time and motivation to do that without a commercial incentive.

  • Asches

    Agreed, PCs are not going away. Another thing that is not mentioned in this article is the fact many markets are down right now … mainly because people just don’t have the money. The economy may be getting better, but even my household is spending 30% less than all years prior.

    The latest generation of computers is less than $800 which helps promote sales, but … after a machine reaches a certain level of RAM, CPU, and Disk. If all a user does is browse the web, why do they need more. The one thing that is killing all devices is loading them with even more garbage. If everyone put less garbage on, vendors, and consumers alike, they would be more useful for longer.

    The only hard facts are that technology is still constantly changing, hard drives still die in 5-10 years (depending on their treatment), death, and taxes.

  • Spensyr

    I think a major point is missed here – at least in larger urban areas, where PC’s might be perennially more in demand, refurbished PC RE-sales are significant. For example, Discount Electronics, one very successful, profitable, and expanding business in the Austin, TX metro area (a continuing veritable hotbed of PC sales for a variety of markets) purchases lots of PC’s retired or replaced by system upgrades in large corporate or state office institutions. Then DC refurbishes them quite well for secondary market sales. While the refurbished systems were replaced by new ones, those purchasing the refurbished computers did not purchase a new system. These systems also tend to have XP, Vista, and Windows 7 on them already, cutting into new PC OS software sales as well, and most assuredly offering savvy PC buyers a route to get suitable new(er) hardware with less overhead depending on new OS SW licenses. I haven’t bought a truly new computer for myself since I learned of Discount Electronics well over a decade ago, though I’ve bought three new(er) systems from them, including a laptop, since. All are still purring along with the oldest of them, an XP, left on 24/7 to auto-produce and upload a radio stream to the Internet. RE: the apparent lack of Linux popularity growth? Well, I actually have over a half-dozen PC’s acquired by various means (two of them given to me – I guess, like old books, I haven’t the heart to re-cycle an operating older PC), and two of these I have already converted to Linux, because they hadn’t the expansion necessary to jump to XP or beyond. I may do the same with the others I have eventually, because I’m pretty stubbornly refusing to jump for the expense of being a Windows OS lemming. Yeah, I’ll likely miss upgrading to some of the venerable Win Office offerings I still use frequently. However, with life going on, the economy continuing to suck, and my income now a fixed retirement amount, I’m resigned to finding future reasonable, perhaps even necessary, alternatives to keep my PC habit satisfied. Cloud computing apps may ease that pain, too … so long as they’re free or nearly so, and Linux gets me to The Cloud virtually as well as any other OS.

  • http://www.local-service.net Jack Kiss

    Simple – not enough good services on the net to justify purchases of PC. If you check my tennis booking prototype at http://www.local-service.net which in my opinion, should administered by national tennis federation – one national web-site for all courts and with the next project similar for hairdressers – the picture can become more obvious what is wrong with the internet. Manufactures must understand that they should participate in development of services on the net if services are not available.

  • John S

    The PC is doomed when I say it is. It’s called responsibility.