Every PC Dies, But Does Every PC Really Live?

InsidePCIt’s that time again.  3Q2013 PC Sales are in, thanks to Gartner research.  Not surprisingly, PC Sales continue to show weakness – around a 9% year-over-year decline.  As is now customary, analysts various and sundry among most major media outlets decry that the PC is dead, it’s kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain, pushin’ up the daisies, and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible.  Tablets and smart phones have inherited the Earth, closed case, nothing to see here.  If you’re typing on a keyboard you’re a dinosaur.  Your personal needs no longer require a box sitting in a room.  All work activities in the enterprise shall henceforth be accomplished by people slapping at their tablets while sitting in a large integrated Starbucks patio that will circumnavigate the planet.  It’s very poetic and optimistic  imagery, but I have serious doubts.  A day may come when the boot drive fails, when we forsake our mice and break all bonds of ATX motherboards, but it is not this day!

The mobile-only obsession is especially vivid in the startup community, which on the technical end is exceptionally app focused lately, almost to a fault.  These are exceptionally smart people, why are they so convinced?  I contend that the prediction is based on a subtly flawed assumption:  that the PC market is as homogenous as the mobile technology that stands to replace it.

In fact, the PC market is everything but homogenous, in both consumer and enterprise environments.  Let’s explore that concept and spark a little debate.

Computing is a diverse activity.  Activities range from email and browsing LOL cats up through CAD modeling and computational fluid dynamics.  Certain activities can happily exist on smaller form factors, compact working spaces, and relatively limited computational overhead – others cannot.  Available PC configurations mirror said diversity, from the mass-produced Wal-Mart clearance special to the custom built God Box crafted in the image of HAL-9000.  Some of us are happy with integrated graphics (and have no idea what that is) – others insist on quad-card SLI.  PC’s are tailored to their purpose.  Mobile devices instead achieve a relative parity within the market – there are no order-of-magnitude differences.

Let’s think about a popular claim often made by the mobile Illumanti: they have abandoned enterprise PC’s for their work and have never looked back.  These hipsters aren’t suffering mass delusion (well, probably), it’s just the nature of their work is predominantly centered on activities for which smart phones and tablets are especially attuned.  If your job primarily involves Powerpoint, email, and meetings (and that’s a lot of us!) of course you can dropkick that dumpy old corporate PC in the trash.  Good riddance!  However, there are many, many people out there working tasks of a very different type: modeling, analysis, creative, special effects, artificial intelligence, financial trading, protein folding, gaming.  Yes gaming is work for some people.  These activities require ample computational horsepower, sprawling multiple displays, serious graphics capabilities or all of the above.  Suffice to say their corporate machine is likely a cut above the hipstertronic 2000.

Sometimes it’s merely the distinction between consumer, prosumer, or professional activity.  Take a task we all do: photo editing.  Some of us just need our food to look fabulous on Instagram.  Others are trying to artistically express themselves using carefully designed SLR photography, and still others are working gigapixel advertising creative for the side of a 40-story building.  Guess who’s doing the editing on their iPhone and who isn’t?

But the facts remain: PC sales are more depressed than a sad clown at a government budget fillibuster. So have tablets and smart phones killed PC’s at all?  Oh my, yes!  Those are the PC’s belonging to the work email hipsters, your parents, and those who are troubled they have missed a pasta dish on Instagram.  Users of so-called mainstream PC’s.  The mainstream PC is taking more arrows than Boromir at an Uruk-hai family BBQ.  But the reality that the mainstream PC has been marginalized does not automatically invalidate the existence of higher-end performance hardware.  Ergo, the PC is not dead.

But that’s not the only trend that has slowed PC sales – there’s another influence at work here.  Market saturation is one.  More importantly is the fact that PC performance has reached an unusually stable plateau for the first time I can remember.  Part of this phenomenon is market driven.  Case in point, the long standing cold war between AMD and Intel is essentially over.  Intel continues to tick and tock, but they are no longer locked in mortal combat with AMD at every release like they were 10 years ago.  Like it or not, diminished competition has a real effect on the pace of progress.

Since 1995 or so I had a long-standing tradition, about every three years or so I would design, select, and personally assemble my own custom PC build.  I tended to go bleeding edge; as such friends and coworkers would collectively joke about how each new entrant would potentially blow the power grid.  Usually by the end of that 3 year life span, that bleeding edge machine was reduced to a barely tolerable experience with respect to more contemporary mainstream hardware.  So by year 3 of each cycle,  I was already deep in planning the next iteration.  My latest machine was born in the summer of 2010, and this year marks a distinct departure.  No replacement machine is on the horizon, not even in the ideation stage.  For the first time ever, there is no compelling need.  Meanwhile the two tablets in the house have their use – and I certainly use them, but never for anything serious.  My serious computing focus is still on the PC.

Remember the reported numbers are a measure of PC sales.  There are no sales, if there are no compelling reasons to replace an existing machine.  And I’ll wager with the performance plateau, market saturation,  and the economy at work, a much larger set of people are holding on to their existing machines.  That doesn’t mean they are flocking to mobile, but rather they are happy where they are at from a utility and especially a cost perspective.

Don’t get me wrong.  Mobile has its uses and its strength.  The form factor works for a variety of tasks.  But certainly not everything.  PC’s will die one day, but it won’t be tablets and phones that will finally kill it.

The death of the PC will arrive on the  day when cloud virtualization becomes both fast enough and secure enough that we can rely on it like a box in the room.  But it is not this day.  Security and broadband connectivity still have a long way to go.  At that point, computational resources will be abstracted across a greater domain, but I’ll still have 3 or 4 mega displays or a holo deck in my office.  The idea that all my future computing will remain in the confines of a portable screen exclusively is crazy.

I know I still need my PC.  I’d sooner give up my right arm and my car.  How about you?  Are you no longer chained to your box, or do you clutch it and sing to it at night?