Russ Harvey Consulting - Computer and Internet Services

Is the PC Desktop Dead?

A Look at the Future of Computing

Is the PC desktop dead?

Some people have declared that the desktop computer is finished.

There has been a huge increase in mobile computing, particularly tablets and smart phones, while desktop PC sales have stagnated.

However, I would argue that this is more an end to the old Moore's Law that caused the requirements for hardware to double about every 18—24 months. While technology continues to grow, many of the advantages are less evident to most people.

[T]he PC isn't dead. What is dead is the old aggressive upgrade cycle that saw PCs being replaced every few years. Not only do people have more cool, shiny things to spend their money on – smartphones and tablets and the like — but also PCs have reached the point where they're powerful enough to last longer than ever. — ZDNet

Several Factors at Play

I think several factors are at play in this scenario by the time Windows XP reached its end of support.

  • Most people in North America that wanted a computer already had one (or several) in their homes.
  • The breakneck pace of PC development had slowed. Most computer users already had everything they needed.
  • Free or inexpensive Internet access was being provided everywhere, releasing the user from the home or business Internet leash.
  • Laptops are affordable and their improved capabilities were sufficient to replace desktop computers for most people that wanted them.

Windows 8 Missed the Boat

Windows 8 was released at this point. Most people were using Windows XP or Windows 7 and had no compelling reason to upgrade since their computers could do all they needed them to do.

To top that off, Microsoft introduced an operating system that didn't suit traditional desktop computers using a mouse and keyboard. This created a conflict between people's perceived needs and the newer, but more expensive, touch screen technologies.

Microsoft wanted Windows 8 to reflect the future of computing, but in achieving that goal it lost sight of the fact that the majority of Windows users are stuck in the here and now using budget hardware attached to keyboards and mice. — ZDNet
  • Most Windows 8 computers didn't have a touch screen, but Windows 8 was optimized for touch.
  • The touch desktop launched by default, which instantly annoyed all the folks comfortable with the traditional desktop.
  • Veteran Windows users were asked to abandon all they had learned about computers since Windows 3.1 when Windows became a household name.

Microsoft was more focused on their own ambitions than truly meeting the needs of their customers.

Not the First Time

Microsoft wasn't the first to make this mistake.

IBM didn't consider the PC a serious competitor to their mainframe computer systems. Rather than take the offer to purchase Microsoft's DOS operating system, they chose instead to license it. That and some other miscalculations ensured Microsoft's success at their own expense.

Tablet Technology Doesn't Sell Desktops

Microsoft also miscalculated when it tried to capture the emerging portable device market.

Their pay-to-upgrade approach was competing with the relatively-new free Android OS (Google makes its money from advertising on the built-in mail, maps and search applications).

By the time Microsoft realized its mistake, Android was the default OS for small devices and Apple had captured the high end of the market.

A “Catastrophe” for Serious Gamers

Serious gamers want the latest and greatest and are willing to spend obscene amounts to get it. Gamers carried the PC industry for several years when PC sales slumped after the tech bubble burst in 2000.

Gabe Newell, managing directory of Valve (a videogame development and distribution company), stated: I think Windows 8 is a catastrophe for everyone in the PC space. I think we'll lose some of the top-tier PC/OEMs, who will exit the market.

PC Sales Drop

The sales of both Windows 8 and desktop computers flatlined.

In December 2011, a month when tablets outsold that whole year's sales of standard PCs, only 10% of U.S. households owned a tablet.

Former Microsoft exec Ozzie responded, ‘Of course we're in a post-PC world’.

I disagree.

Many households already owned more than one PC still capable of decent performance, allowing people to consider the luxury of a portable device.

Could Something Else Be at Work?

Microsoft had failed to provide true value or compelling reasons for users to upgrade or purchase a new computer. Instead they focussed on obtaining a controlling share of the lucrative new phone and tablet market.

Misread the Portable Market

Android and Apple smart phones and tablets provided enough power for basic email, web surfing and social media and were essentially free (their cost contained within monthly cellular fees).

Microsoft failed in their bid to be a player in the mobile phone market because they couldn't compete with Android's free OS strategy and lost ground in the PC market because they failed to provide value.

Gambled on PC Touch Technology

They gambled on their belief that folks were ready to move into a touch-only environment and ignored the traditional keyboard and mouse desktop market. Windows 8 came at a point where support for Windows XP was almost over, yet most folks were happy with that computing environment.

These combined as significant contributors to the decline in PC sales and Microsoft lost their bid to be a player in the mobile phone market.

Ignored the Traditional Desktop

Windows 7 was the last Windows version that truly provided the traditional desktop environment that folks had been using since the days of Windows 3.1 (1992–2001). As support for Windows XP expired, some moved to Windows 7 but many more moved to alternatives like Linux or the Mac while too many others stayed with XP in spite of increased security risks.

Windows 10

Windows 10 is showcasing some incredible new technology like holographic computing, the Cortana digital assistant and some features of the Microsoft Edge browser.

Gaming Restored

Microsoft restored gaming in Windows 10 by including a permanent (uninstallable and proprietary) Xbox presence (Windows 10 could be installed on Xbox) plus featuring games like Candy Crush on the Start menu by default.

Traditional Desktop Support Restored

Windows 10 provides a full desktop experience for traditional users (much like Windows 7) but allows those that have moved to Windows 8.1's touch interface to choose that format. The interface is a bit of a hybrid, with a restored Start menu combined with Windows 8 style tiles (a bit more configurable than in Windows 8.1).

It provides a full desktop experience for traditional users (much like Windows 7) but allows those that have moved to Windows 8's touch interface to choose that format. The interface is a bit of a hybrid, with the Start menu looking more like Windows 7's on the left with Windows 8 style tiles on the right side.

Windows 7 Users Reluctant to Upgrade

Windows 7 has proved to be as difficult for Microsoft to get people to move forward from as XP was as support expired for it. Microsoft's offer of a free upgrade to Windows 10 for Windows 7 and 8.1 users was probably motivated as much by this fact as by their desire to move to supporting a single Windows environment.

Many of the new technologies like holographics and 3D printing were not yet mature. Perhaps few folks outside of industry saw a need for such tools and their current hardware didn't support them.

Lack of Alternatives

I believe it is only by brutally ending support for older versions of Windows that Microsoft is acquiring new users for Windows 10. Still, the number of users didn't meet projections and it was a number of years later, with the death of Windows 7 support approaching, that Windows 10 finally overtook Windows 7 as the most popular desktop OS.

Apple and Linux Emerge

Microsoft has dominated the PC since the earliest IBM PCs were licensed exclusively with Microsoft DOS (you could install something else but still had to pay for the Microsoft license with the purchase of the machine).

Paid Automatic Upgrades a Thing of the Past

Microsoft's failing share of the market has allowed the Linux and Mac markets to grow. This is aggravated by the increasing numbers that have abandoned the traditional “trade-up” every time Microsoft launched a new paid version of Windows.

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Portable Devices

So how do portable devices factor into the future of the desktop?

Portable Devices Trend Adjusting

With tablets and smart phones emerging as the new, more portable alternative, the debate has become more intense. Market penetration has increased rapidly but saturation of the North American market appears to be approaching.

More recently, manufacturers like Apple have faced slowing growth trends as the market of first-time tablet buyers shrinks just as the market of first-time PC buyers has declined.

Tablets Cost Less

Many user's budgets determine that they can buy one or the other. If their current PC is working OK, the tablet provides a portable alternative for less than the cost of a replacement PC.

As such, [the Apple iPad] was an ideal purchase for those who'd been paring back for more than a year and a half and were looking for a modest indulgence. Most people equate the 1930s with bread lines, but the decade also saw sales double for a new gadget called the radio. — “Lesson of the iPad: In Tough Times, Treat Yourself,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, October 15, 2012

More recent tablets, particularly the Apple Pro series, have become as powerful as computers. Depending upon the sort of input you used and your requirements the tablet could have many advantages, particularly for graphic artists using the Apple Pencil.

Most Still Have a Functioning PC

Most of the folks buying a tablet or signing up for a smart phone already have a desktop that allows them to do their taxes, create and print documents, scan, surf the Web and more.

Both the desktop and mobile operating system market shares appear to be relatively flat.

The “Cloud” Enables Portable Computing

The emergence of cloud computing (see Moving into the “Cloud”) has made us less dependent upon local storage and has made our information available to us wherever we are — even when using smaller devices like smart phones and tablets.

The reliability and security of cloud-based systems is varied.

  • Cloud-based software is dependent upon the company providing the remote service unlike software installed on your own computer.
  • Mobile apps are far more diverse and fail more frequently, often because they lack support.
  • The number, frequency and extent of reported (and unreported) privacy breaches (hacks) in the cloud makes it unattractive for sensitive or critical data.
  • A 16 hour Outlook and Hotmail shutdown in March 2013 demonstrated the effects of a temporary disruption in service.
  • When Google discontinued a number of their services the users dependent upon those services suddenly found themselves without options.
  • In May, 2019, CrashPlan by Code42 suddenly deleted client historical backups, leaving many without critical business backups or years of historical data.

Most Canadian Internet providers are also raising the price of extensive data usage, trying to shore up their declining profits in TV while facing threats like Netflix making online storage pricey in spite of the convenience.

Security a Bigger Issue with Small Devices

Universal access also increases the potential for hacking and accidental loss of your critical data (most non-corporate users don't retain local backups when using the cloud).

Smart devices are smaller, portable and easier to misplace. When a smart phone is lost or stolen you could lose important personal data (or worse, corporate data).

Sure you can remotely wipe iPhones, iPads and other devices, but you'd lose anything prior to the last backup or sync. Users may be reluctant to take this step because of the cost of these devices.

California has passed a law requiring all new phones sold in the state to have remote wiping capability that would make them non-functional to remove their attractiveness for theft. That still doesn't account for the reluctance to quickly wipe irreplaceable data.

The Corporate Market

Corporations can put their agents into the field with tablets largely because they are supported by well-developed computer networks to tie into.

Enterprise users indicated mixed prospects with only 24% even contemplating deploying Windows 8 during the early release days and most sticking with Windows 7. Windows 10 should fare somewhat better given the demise of Vista and the pending end of support for Windows 7.

The Personal Market

But what about the individual? Are the emerging systems sufficiently sophisticated to completely do away with traditional computers?

I've set up several clients with a simple tablet connected via a router and wireless printer. If all they are doing is email and surfing the Web, this combination meets their needs. They can still print documents and photos and the photographic capabilities are wonderful even compared to digital cameras only a few years older.

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Can We Do Without Traditional PCs?

So, can we do without the desktop computer?

That depends upon what you're using the computer for.

PCs Lasting Longer

Personally, I don't read “the death of the PC” into the current trend towards tablets.

This technology offers portability but doesn't yet replace the power of a PC. Truly powerful portable devices an as-yet unfulfilled promise slowed down by high cost of both the higher-quality devices and cellular data as well as the relative clumsiness of on-screen keyboards. That is quickly changing.

It Depends Upon the User's Requirements

There's a big difference between posting on Facebook and creating a commercial document.

So the suitability of moving from a desktop (or laptop) computer to a tablet depends upon what your requirements are and how skilled you are with traditional and newer hardware.

Not everyone is willing or needs to continually upgrade their computer. That said, tablets have a relatively shorter lifespan since they cannot be upgraded (you're stuck with the technology you bought). Laptops have a similar issue although some upgrades are possible even if it means using external add-ons.

Casual Use & Social Networks Not As Demanding of Hardware

If you only access email and the Web you probably don't need a computer to do so (and certainly can't justify purchasing a more powerful one if you have a relatively recent model that does the job).

A tablet or smart phone will work just fine. Even if you can't afford the purchase price for a new computer you can still obtain a “free” smart phone — paying for the upgrade within you monthly fees.

Content Creators Need More Power

Those creating serious content are going to need something more robust — at least for the majority of their work. A tablet or smart phone may provide a necessary convenience, but will not replace the computer for these users. This is not necessarily true for graphic artists that can used the drawing capabilities of high-end tablets more effectively than computers in many cases.

This may come in time as voice control improves and devices become more powerful, but we're not quite there yet. Windows 10 has made huge strides in this area and it is probably only a matter of time before this trend changes.

As well, data plans for cellular networks are still far too expensive in Canada — it costs far more than home-based Internet does (and obscenely more than basic cable television does for similar bandwidth).

Tablets an Accessory for Power Users

I can't be as productive with a high-end laptop as I was when using a Windows 7 desktop that cost half what my laptop did.

In fact, I have a hard time visualizing how a desktop of large and distracting “live” icons will improve my productivity. Social media is not my main focus (and I don't use XBox) — I'm concentrating on creating primarily text-based content, not watching it.

I have a third-generation iPad and sixth-generation iPhone. The clarity of the iPad screen is breath-taking and there is a lot that I can do with it, but it certainly hasn't replaced my computer although the newer iPad Pro series show great promise in this regard. Most power users will require a powerful laptop or a desktop for the foreseeable future.

Can You Move to a Tablet?

Can intensive applications like large spreadsheets, databases, image development, AutoCAD and similar programs run on tablets allowing you to leave your desktop or laptop behind?

It depends (and “yes” is getting closer).

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History of the Desktop

The First Computers

Mainframe computers (the first business computers) were huge, expensive and required specialized technical staff to maintain.

As the desktop computer emerged, companies like America Online and CompuServe were launched to take advantage of excess computing capacity available with these monstrous computers. This was in the days before the Internet as we know it today.

The Desktop Emerges

The first critical application that sold businesses on the PC was Lotus 1-2-3, a spreadsheet that allowed for “what-if” comparisons.

Companies could produce financial statements quickly instead of getting them from the accountant months later. As well, the new computer could generate “what-if” scenarios that allowed a company to see what might happen if they increased production.

Expensive & Technical

Business computers were very expensive compared to today's pricing (starting at over $10,000 for computer, monitor, keyboard, printer and software) and still took some technical knowledge to operate (they ran on command line programs like DOS).

Few had home computers as they were simply too expensive (often more than an average annual income).

There were no colour monitors — you had green or amber monochrome screens.

Portable Computing Emerges

The first portable computers were about the size of a sewing machine and had tiny 9 inch screens and cost much more than a comparable desktop computer. Most were used for accounting and similar tasks.

Moore's Law

As prices fell and programs became more user-friendly, computers became more attractive.

The pace of new technology was so fast that the cutting edge would be obsolete in 18 months (Moore's Law), so computer sales were brisk year after year.

Graphical Interfaces

While there were earlier attempts, the first widespread graphical interface (GUI) that allowed people to use a mouse rather than type in arcane commands was Windows 3.1.

Colour computing was emerging, printers and other hardware were becoming more user-friendly as well.

The PC Goes Mainstream

Windows 95 was the first version of Windows that didn't launch after DOS — one of the last hurdles for the personal computer to go mainstream.

Each subsequent version of Windows (and other operating systems) were released with faster hardware and more capabilities (each version moving further away from the now-hidden DOS command-line).

Interactive gaming became possible and the home computer became a reality in many homes.

“All We Need”

Windows XP was probably the culmination of that growth trend in the desktop computer.

Vista offered little in actual increased productivity and most people had everything they needed in a computer and PC sales began to decline.

When the primary computer was replaced the children could continue to use the older computer. Home networking became practical and allowed for the sharing of files, printers and scanners.

Not Enough Bang for the Buck

The newer versions of operating systems weren't providing as many improvements in productivity for what most people were using them for.

Truly Portable Computing Emerges

With the emergence of tablets and smart phones, the desktop had a serious competitor for people's computing dollars. Given that the benefits of upgrading were no longer as compelling as before, desktop sales plummeted.

Tablets

When Apple released the iPad, many people purchased those instead. They didn't need to invest in a new computer (“the old one works fine, thank you”) and the new device gave them portability and all the technology they needed to perform most of the tasks they needed while on the go.

Smart Phones

Smart phones allowed the average user to use email, surf the Web and post on social media from virtually anywhere. Because the phone was purchased on a plan, there was only a small start-up cost with the balance defrayed over a two- or three-year contract.

As a result, many users found the large outlay required to purchase a new computer less attractive.

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Updated: October 23, 2019