Is the PC Doomed?

Craig Buckler

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.