I am known for being a mobile enthusiast: I currently own seven mobile devices between tablets and smartphones, and I recently bought a Sony Vaio Duo hybrid laptop/tablet. While I may look like Mr. Mobile, the truth is that what really excites me isn’t mobile, but innovation, so when I saw Intel CEO Brian Krzanich’s comment that PCs are alive and well, I started thinking.
Industry watchers like to point to declining PC sales volumes and the ballooning popularity of smartphones and tablets to say that the PC is dead. But is this really true? Could it be that PCs have simply adopted a new form factor, and that the real computing revolution is still approaching?
Are PCs Really Dead?
I believe that the view that the PC is dead is disingenuous hype based on a flawed understanding of what personal computing actually is. The argument goes that the PC, essentially shorthand here for a desktop or traditional laptop running Windows and using a mouse and keyboard for input, is an aging, ugly and unfriendly device that simply cannot compete with lovely shiny smartphones and tablets running iOS or Android on ARM chips.
Even if we accept this proposition (more on that later), I would argue that all this means that the PC has changed: consumers and businesses are buying different types of PC which better meet their needs.
That’s where Brian Krzanich’s statement is very interesting: he contends that the PC is alive and well because the new generation of processors is so efficient that it is allowing Windows machines to offer the same battery life as ARM processors, except with traditional desktop performance. Think about it: the whole “the PC is dead” hype revolves around mobility, and the problem with traditional laptops (for example) wasn’t just that their size meant they weren’t portable.
If you tried to squeeze the components into an iPad-sized case, the processor would get very hot and even if you ignored the comfort and longevity problems that posed, the battery just wouldn’t last long enough to be useful. As for trying to put a low-performance processor in the device to reduce heat, well, it just wouldn’t be powerful enough to run the Windows operating system and software.
So it would appear that Intel’s new 14nm chip design (reduced from the 22nm of the current-generation Haswell, where the size refers to half the distance between identical features on the semiconductor array) will be able to offer a powerful processor which uses very little power. That means plenty of power to support multiple screens, run high-performance applications, just like a desktop, while also offering low heat, long battery life and enabling devices to be made smaller and sleeker without affecting functionality, like a tablet.
Smartphones & Tablets: The New PC, Same As The Old PC?
This is why I don’t think the PC is dead just yet; it’s more that device manufacturers haven’t been able to offer anything really convincing for a while, which has led to us all having a wide range of devices. It certainly hasn’t helped that uninspiring desktops and laptops have been competing with the two fastest-growing device types ever in smartphones and tablets, but I wonder if we might be reaching the end of that hype curve.
Lately, it’s seemed that smartphone and tablet launches just haven’t generated as much excitement as they used to, mostly because this year’s phone is much the same as last year’s.
Sure, if you have a two-year-old device, you might decide it’s starting to run a bit slowly and buy the new one, but that’s not a booming market, that’s replacement. Add in the fact that we’re making our traditional PCs last longer while our fancy new ones don’t seem to last very long, and it’s not hard to argue that the smartphone is just an evolution in the PC market.
As further evidence of this evolution, the company I work for sells an application platform for both the traditional and mobile market, and we have seen huge demand for our applications to support offline capabilities. Enterprise users need to be able to continue working, caching data and logging transactions when there is no wi-fi or 3G coverage. Of course we said yes and our technology now supports offline use. The fact that there was a need shows that the tablet is an evolution of the laptop, and as such we are supporting offline access on traditional environments as well as dedicated mobile environments.
I think the disconnection between hype and reality stems from how and why these new devices have changed the way we use them. We used to see “portable” as a device that we carried in a large, dedicated bag, whereas now we expect that it will fit in a pocket. In the old world, when we wanted to use our laptops, we had to wait several minutes for them to boot up, and when they did they had to be put on a table to be used.
Now, devices are always-on, ready for action the moment you open the cover, and hand-held so you can use them wherever you are. Also, our mobile devices are becoming fashion statements, which never happened with a boxy old laptop!
It would be easy to point to the fact that I’m typing this on a laptop with a second screen as evidence that very little has changed, but the laptop is tiny and can turn into a tablet when needed. It’s not quite there yet but it does show that while the traditional PC remains the device of choice wherever processing power is more important than mobility, which includes a lot of professional applications, enhanced mobility is an important consideration for the majority of users, most of the time.
So I believe the question of whether PCs are dead will come down to how PC manufacturers approach the challenge offered by customers who know what they want and want to it be quick, portable and stylish as well as functional. If they embrace desire for these features in new PCs, and build devices that are always-on and easy to carry (even if they don’t quite fit in pockets) then I believe that they will do well in this new wave of innovation.
The other reason that I think the PC could get a new lease of life is that the next big thing looks like wearable technology, such as Google Glass and the Samsung, Nissan or rumoured Apple smartwatches. I think this is a very exciting development as these have the potential to make computing even more “personal” by being a device attached to you which you may even see the world through, but I also believe that these will be “companion devices” which will connect to other devices for complex tasks.
While the smartphone will probably be one of those devices (to display text messages and calendar, for example), the PC will also be useful as the device where data can be easily parsed and analysed, and where we can really understand what our wearables have recorded.