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The traditional PC is far from dead, but its continued decline is inexorable. The reason? Choice.
After the PC became a household item, its status went unchallenged for years. Yes, there were innovations: laptops came along, computers gradually got smaller, high-speed Wi-Fi replaced tedious cables and dial-up modems. But upgrades were driven by Moore's Law and the commoditization of components, not changes in the basic premise.
PCs are still more powerful than competing computing devices, and they're essential for tasks that none of these alternatives can manage. But smartphones and tablets are powerful in their own right. PCs might be fixtures in the workplace, but for years, most of the time users spent in front of those screens was dedicated to surfing the Internet, reading email or watching videos. Mobile devices handle these -- the most common of user tasks -- more conveniently and intuitively than their PC forefathers, and they represent the first time that consumers have had a fundamental choice in their computing options; that is, the ability to purchase a device that doesn't look like the machines at work.
The bring-your-own-device (BYOD) phenomenon is a result of this choice. At first, new gadgets simply provided another way to read and watch digital content, leaving the PC's dominance as a production tool unchallenged. But choice permitted workers and businesses to come at productivity from new angles, and to develop workflows suited for the new devices. PCs still rule the enterprise empire, but where there was something akin to a technological hegemony only a few years ago, there's now a growing number of disruptions in the making.
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That's why the traditional PC will never rebound. The tablet explosion isn't an end in and of itself; it's the first phase of a larger shift in computing. Not convinced? Consider the following four facts:
1. All-in-ones are nice -- but the multi-screen experience is here to stay.
There's clearly demand for a device that does it all -- something like the Surface Pro, or for some users, the iPad. But as Forrester analyst JP Gownder recently noted, even the upstart mobile market is becoming increasingly fragmented and difficult to define. Some of this has to do with user preference for one operating system over another. Cost is another factor. But there's also mounting evidence that both consumers and employees are happy to own multiple devices. The reason? Users like to choose the best option -- or combination of options -- for a given task or situation.
To some extent, this trend causes cannibalization; that the PC market has stalled while the tablet market soars attests to as much. And as much as people might want to use multiple devices, there are obviously limits to how much any given person or business is able to spend. But in the course of a single day, an average person might use a smartphone for email and light reading, a tablet for games or to watch Hulu, and a traditional computer for "serious" work.
The variety of devices will only increase as new phablets and an anticipated wave of 8-inch Windows 8 tablets hits the market. Mobile devices are not only cheaper than new PCs but also more likely -- at least for now -- to offer attractive generation-over-generation enhancements. This has led many users to upgrade their mobile devices at regular intervals, a trend that's likely to continue. Conventional computers face a different reality; they will still have a big place, but their diminished role and higher prices will give consumers less incentive to frequently replace aging models. PCs will endure in some form as part of a multi-screen ecosystem, but their best days are behind them.
2. Tablets will continue to encroach on the PC's territory.
The extent to which new devices can replace PCs is limited. Adobe, for example, is preparing to bring Lightroom, one of its most popular products for photographers, to iOS. But the iPad Mini's screen is too small to be ideally suited to the heavy photo-editing for which the program is known. Can the software retain its granular functionality when translated to a touch-based interface? The vast majority of legacy tasks face these kinds of questions, and in many cases, such as programming or document creation, a mouse and keyboard make more sense than a touchscreen and finger.
At the same time, although many business people use tablets for mostly email or on-the-go access to shared documents, tablets also have allowed doctors to speed up turnarounds between patients, enabled field workers go where no laptop can venture, and retail to do business faster. PCs will remain indispensable in the workplace for the foreseeable future, but their erosion will continue.
There might be hybrid devices that eventually meet a lot of users' needs by offering Windows 8-like access to both desktop and tablet environments. But these devices would still be used in tablet mode to a huge extent, so much so that it would be a stretch to refer to them as traditional PCs, regardless of how IDC or Gartner ultimately decided to classify their sales. And unless they can magically resize themselves and/or multiply on command, do-it-all devices will stop neither the multi-screen trend nor the need for different sizes of gadgets.
Put another way, the tablet market is poised to overtake the PC market, even without much help from Microsoft or Windows 8. The iPad is only three years old, and even if tablets have infiltrated only a fraction of companies, the fact that they've made a mark at all in such a short time is impressive. As the technology evolves, apps and workflows will arise that allow tablets to invade the workplace even further. PCs might retain a big chunk of their tasks, but all the small losses add up.
3. Tablets are just the beginning.
Tablets and smartphones are only the first wave of technologies that will eat into the traditional PC market. Widespread adoption of wearable technology, whether it ends up looking like Google Glass, is coming. It's also now possible to stick a sensor and processor in just about anything. Just as touch has changed the computing world, so too will developing technologies, such as voice- or gesture-based interfaces. TVs and computers will gradually merge together, becoming something that won't properly fit either of those categories as we know them today. The list could go on.
The implication for PCs? These new technologies will absorb a few more of the tasks for which we currently use other devices, not only laptops and desktops but probably smartphones and tablets, too. But the most profound impact won't involve the re-appropriation of earlier devices' duties but rather a new breed of apps. Such apps could rely on anything from augmented reality to analytics derived from pervasive sensors linked via the cloud to big data backends. It's difficult to predict how such bleeding-edge technology will develop, but one thing is certain: new categories of apps and devices are unlikely to kill the PC, but they won't do it any favors, either.
4. The tech powers have already conceded the future.
In their decisions, the major tech players have already conceded the low likelihood of a PC resurgence. Microsoft's increased interest in mini-tablets is one indication. The diversity of devices that will use Intel chips, once virtually synonymous with Windows and PCs, is another. OEMs such as Samsung, HP and Acer are no longer building devices around a single platform but rather producing options that run the gamut: Chrome OS, Android, Windows and so on.
Dell's decision to go private is another sign; the move was presumably compelled by a need to shift its revenue balance away from PCs, which are still lucrative but not to the extent that they can support a big company. Dell is also among a growing number of companies investing in virtualization and cloud products to mitigate the need for enterprises to standardize their infrastructures around a single operating system. Industry powers are demonstrating, in short, than an era of diverse computing has dawned.
Indeed, Gartner projects that half of all companies will implement mandatory BYOD programs by 2017. Not all of these programs will be motivated by business use cases or leaps in productivity, but they reiterate the new prominence of consumer choice.
These choices are only expected to increase, and a multi-device philosophy has become part of our computing culture. As a result, consumers and businesses will continue to find new workflows and new approaches to old problems. That won't kill the traditional PC any time soon. But it guarantees that the PC won't rebound either.