Mobility

Does the decline in PC sales indicate tablet dominance?

Tablets and mobile devices are a major force behind the decline in PC sales, but is the PC dead, and are tablets truly the heir apparent for desktops and laptops?

The big news this week was the IDC study that PC sales experienced a nearly 14% year-over-year drop, the largest decline since the company began tracking the metric. It's fairly obvious that tablets and mobile devices are a major force behind the decline, but is the PC dead, and are tablets truly the heir apparent for desktops and laptops?

The PC and the curse of "good enough"

Not surprisingly, I was a bit of a geek as a teenager, and I remember lusting after the latest and greatest processor announcements from Intel, planning how many lawns I would need to mow to garner another dozen mHz in speed and leap from one processor generation to the next. Each new generation of processors was notably faster than the last, and even the uninitiated could see the difference in speed between, say, a 286 and 386 processor.

We've now entered an era where processor speed is largely irrelevant for most general productivity applications. I can't tell the difference between using Microsoft Office on the latest Core i7 processor and a three-year-old mobile chip, assuming a similar storage system. While games and video rendering get a massive and noticeable bump on the newer machine, these are tasks I rarely perform. For consumers and enterprises alike, the three- or four-year-old PC or Mac functions just as well as the latest and greatest when the majority of computing tasks are shuffling emails, typing documents, and jockeying spreadsheets. Even my four-year-old netbook, with an Intel Atom processor that's often chided as being "underpowered," competently runs Windows 7 and the latest Office suite.

The app invasion

Much of the talk of apps has become a bit tedious, but interestingly, mobile apps have replaced many of the tasks once performed on a traditional computer. There are a ton of banking and personal finance apps, and always-available email trumps any productivity lost to smaller keys. Even gaming has largely moved away from the PC. My mother-in-law is the stereotypical "casual gamer" and used to enjoy all manner of card and puzzle games on her laptop. With an iPad now at her disposal, the PC sits on a table gathering dust.

The Windows 8 gamble

One of the most shocking aspects of the recent decline in PC sales was that it coincided with a major OS release from Microsoft. In years past, an OS upgrade prompted brisk PC sales as consumers and enterprises alike timed their hardware updates to Redmond's latest and greatest. The IDC numbers seem to indicate Windows 8 is missing expectations, but I see a deeper problem.

Just as recent hardware has been "good enough" for many users, Windows 7 is hitting the same mark on the OS front. Many would even make that argument about Windows XP, but the decade-plus old OS was definitely showing its age. Just as the hardware and software hit the mark of "good enough," Microsoft made a major shift in how its software worked.

Show an XP user Windows 7, and they'll likely feel right at home. With Windows 8, many users are initially confused. Combine this with a machine that's already "good enough," and there's little reason to invest in a new machine running Windows 8. Where I see Microsoft missing the mark is on pitching Windows 8 as a unifying experience among tablet, desktop, and phone, rather than a very different looking OS with poorly articulated benefits that fail to lift it over the "good enough" hurdle.

What's next?

I believe the concept of the PC as the center of one's computing experience is dead. Companies that continue to regard tablets and smartphones as disconnected, peripheral devices do so at their own peril and face a similar threat. The PC-style device, however, may have some life left. If Microsoft, Apple, or the open source movement could produce a highly connected device that integrates deeply with our mobile devices, they may have a winner on their hands. Despite the current love of all things touch, there's still plenty of room for large screens and keyboards, especially in the enterprise.

Do you agree or disagree? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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