Never Underestimate the Power of the PC Side

LordPCSome of the Digerati would have you believe the personal computer is dead. Mobile has killed the personal computer, they say. The PC should be left smoldering in anguish, limbs all chopped off, quietly slipping away into a lava flow on some remote volcano planet. PC was hard to work with, often times angry, and would deliver the blue screen choke of death all too often. Just let the PC die, and welcome the era of smart phones and tablets for everything. But the PC lives still. As tablet sales erode to both market saturation and indifference, and PC’s long-depressed sales numbers go on a rebound it should be quite clear that mobile alone cannot kill the PC. At first, analysts were thinking perhaps the PC was just not completely dead, that it might just be twitching involuntarily, or perhaps that it was undead. Now they are forced (see what I did there?) to conclude that the PC is quite possibly alive after all. Lord PC. Yes my master? Riiiiiiise.

The PC’s not going anywhere, and still has plenty of capacity to kick some ass and look good in black. Of course, we’ve talked about this before in Every PC Dies, But Does Every PC Really Live? In that article we talked about how mobile use displaces a variety of mainstream consumer PC use, but when it comes to getting real work done, the business world knows very well that devotion to a seemingly sad, ancient religion produces real results. But it doesn’t stop the naysayers from concocting accusations of outdated sorcerer’s ways. Case in point, University of Pittsburgh assistant Professor Richard Franklin makes some bold claims in his LinkedIn Post A New Era for Microsoft:

“Windows has become increasingly irrelevant as users have migrated in huge numbers to mobile devices running either Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android”

For which he later expounds in the comments:

“We may still have our PCs but we spend less and less time on them and more time and do ever more on our mobile devices.”

I find your lack of faith disturbing. Despite the explosion of mobile device sales over the last several years, users weren’t necessarily buying mobile devices to replace their PC’s but rather to augment them. Perennial lamentation over PC sales has everything to do with market saturation and nothing at all to do with obsolescence. Evidence: Smartphones demonstrate impressive market penetration of 80% of all online adults according to the GlobalWebIndex. On that same index, tablets have fought hard to reach 47% with sales now in decline. Where’s the PC at in all of this? Yep, 91%. And this in proximity of PC’s presumably darkest hour, characterized by long declines in PC sales over the same several years. Declines which now are suddenly at a turnaround at the hands of Dell, Intel, and yes even Apple. Never underestimate the power of the PC side.

But let’s throw a few more Jawas on the camp fire. The often celebrated tablet revolution may be at an end, caught in between the PC’s usefulness and the rise of the Sith phablet phone. Ask most people about their latest phone upgrade and they will tell you unequivocally: they were after a larger screen. According to ComputerWorld and Kantar the prognosis for tablets seems particularly grim:

Tablets are a “nice-to-have and not a must-have, because phones and PCs are enough to get by,” added Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar Worldpanel. In a recent Kantar survey of 20,000 potential tablet buyers, only 13% said they definitely or probably would buy a tablet in the next year, while 54% said they would not, Milanesi said. Of those planning not to buy a tablet, 72% said they were happy with their current PC.”

It seems the future is a world of both phones and PC’s, not replacing, but complementing each other. But why the dichotomy? Can’t there be only one? Always two there are. It’s all about the divide between content consumption and creation.

To illustrate, try your own little experiment. Visit your nearest coffee shop, coworking space, office park, van down by the river, or Star Wars convention. Observe people diligently using devices. You’ll find those on mobile devices are overwhelmingly consuming content. And those creating content – they’re hugging their laptops (or three). The one prominent cross platform activity that’s not consumption? You guessed it: email. That’s why you’ll find that those who claim they’ve chucked their laptops for full-on mobile workforce nirvana spend an inordinate amount of their time with email. Often telling other people what to tear apart in order to find this or that battle station plan and periodically approving, disapproving, and/or choking various things.

Need another visual example? Watch the entertaining Slack video. Slack is a quite popular startup to improve communications among working teams, and reducing dependence on email. Notice anything particular about all the people working in the video? They all are using various PCs, and several have more than one PC and/or display. Slack is available on mobile – are they sitting in a ring tapping away on their phones? Nope. The mobile capability is merely complimentary to the core PC work experience.

From an ergonomic, efficiency and performance perspective, the mobile device is simply insufficient except for the most casual content creation. From CAD to video production to graphical rendering to financial analysis to software development, these things are not being accomplished on mobile. It’s not because it isn’t possible, but that it’s neither practical nor necessary for mainstream work. When forced to accomplish such things on mobile only, most people would stumble about robotically and exclaim Noooooooooooo!  It’d probably be easier to cut off a hand. Will PC’s as we know them ever go away? Eventually technology will change dramatically, but that will be in a galaxy far, far away.

  • Ryan

    Great argument, Ed. I, too, have to agree that there are two types of users: authors and consumers and these users you two different devices.
    I am a bit disturbed about the 13% comment with tablets. With that maybe the author of that survey should have defined tablet better. Are we talking about iPads, the Android-based tablets and neutered Surface (not Pro’s) tablets? If so, those devices would be consumer devices- I can see the 13%.
    If the article is including the Surface Pro’s I’d disagree strongly. These are true mobile pcs with tablet (touch) functionality. I can drive 2- 24″ monitors and the main screen and 2 different CAD software packages on my Surface Pro 3 and still watch Netflix in my lounge chair at the coffee shop!
    I’m excited to see where these devices will go with Windows 10!

  • srichey321

    Good article. PCs have too much of a utilitarian value to go away anytime soon.

  • Ross Bernheim

    Missing from the discussion is screen size. Try viewing a schematic on a phone or even a phablet. Compare that to a large screen. A completely different experience. Data sheet, a document longer than half a page. So many documents just don’t view well on a small screen.

    I have an 8.9″ Kindle Fire HDX and with its high definition screen and ability to display pdf files and zooming capabilities is usable, but not ideal for viewing documents. It does score on portability as I can easily take it to the device I am working on which is where I need the schematic. The zoom feature is quite handy for working with large schematics.

    I just had to upgrade my smartphone and am amazed at the new display which makes it more readable and useful for more tasks. I use it as a phone, HP41C calculator emulator, voice and phone call recorder. Less often, it is used with a bluetooth multimeter which adds a lot of interesting capabilities by using the computational and display capabilities of the smartphone. The clock and weather applications are useful. The ability to do a wifi survey is handy at times. Email is less handy than on a big desktop screen. Traffic apps in the car are useful. All in all mostly things that rely on mobility and other features of the phone that the pc doesn’t have.

    Reading a book? Phone is last choice, computer monitor is a bit better, even a laptop is not much better. Some books are better on a tablet, and others on an e-ink reader.

    The point is we don’t live in a world where we have to choose only one device. We can have multiple devices and use those best suited for a given task. The right tool for the job. It’s nice to have more than just a hammer in our toolbox.

    • Completely agree Ross, screen real estate is a huge differentiator not only in resolution, but in number of displays available.

      Having choice in available devices and using multiple devices is the norm from my perspective, what in your view triggers some to think that the future must be mobile only?