Tablets

Mobile computing and the demise of the desktop

Patrick Gray discusses some factors that might spell the end of the desktop as we know it. Do you think tablets will eventually replace the traditional desktop?

Apple's earnings, which were recently released, had an interesting subtext beneath numbers that generally disappointed investors. As Apple's flagship iPhone and iPad sales had another brisk quarter, Macintosh sales slowed, and desktops fell 13%. With the iPad eclipsing overall Mac sales, is the tablet finally poised to banish the desktop to the annals of technology history?

The dawn of the specialized processor

One of the major factors that might spell the end of the desktop as we know it has been the rise of specialized processors. In the traditional end-user computing market, upgrading processing power was largely a question of adding more transistors. Need more number crunching, video processing, or data manipulation power? Add more transistors.

Computer graphics largely led the transition of specialized processors in the end-user space, with everyone from gamers to graphics professionals quickly discovering that a commodity video expansion card, optimized for moving pixels, could add vast capabilities at a far lower cost than adding general processing power.

The rise of mobile

As mobile became increasingly important, processor design took several additional leaps. The result was low-power processors, many of which actually combine a multitude of computing functions on a single chip. Additionally, processing power has largely plateaued for the end user. A three-year-old CPU is most likely just as effective for the average user as the latest and greatest.

Combined with mobile, computing has become largely commoditized for most end users. Computing devices have become generic tools for accessing content via a web browser, emailing, and using an office productivity suite. The average mobile processor has more than sufficient power to handle these tasks, and so the performance hit traditionally associated with mobile computing has quickly become well worth the tradeoff of increased mobility.

Evolution

While it might be fun to predict the demise of the desktop, keyboards and large monitors are essential parts of the computing experience for many users. Where the traditional desktop's days are numbered, however, is in acting as the center of your computing experience: storing all your documents, applications, and a unique computing environment. Two potential evolutions from this role seem most likely: a cloud-centered computer experience or a mobile device-centered experience, with tablets playing a central role in both.

A cloud-centric experience has been preached since the days of the dumb terminal, although increasingly ubiquitous network connectivity has rekindled this vision. The obvious trick required to pull off this transition is allowing for local storage of documents and applications, and setting when disconnected, which is something no one has been able to effectively do to this point.

Microsoft, in particular, seems to be betting on more of a device-centric approach, with something like the Surface tablet working as a traditional tablet, functioning in a laptop-like role with an attached keyboard or connecting with a traditional docking station. Combine this with Microsoft's cloud offerings, and there's less need for a traditional desktop. Recent patents even show a hybrid docking station that might include a supplemental processor and memory.

The tablet takeover?

While tablets in their current guise are unlikely to banish the keyboard, mouse, and large monitor, for many users, a tablet can likely replace the actual computer in the traditional desktop scenario. Microsoft seems to be making the strongest push in this area, but all the major tablet players are spending less time on desktop software and more time (and revenue) on tablets.

Do you think tablets will eventually replace the traditional desktop? Share your opinion 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. Patrick has...

55 comments
jay.fiskness
jay.fiskness

Tablets have a long way to go before they will touch the power, speed, and versatility of a desktop. We have deployed a few tablets and all I ever hear is "Why cant it do this" and usually there is no supported solution for the request. Tablets are just what they are designed to do, be a slimmed down version of a laptop. A laptop can be just as light and small and still offers way more than any tablet and I suspect it will stay that way for some time and even if tablets get to that point, wouldnt it just be a laptop?

davidadkins
davidadkins

As a IT professional that also uses CAD programs, I don't see the desktop being suplanted by tablets and smart phones. There is too much detail required as well as the use of mouse, keyboard and a large monitor.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

You used Apple Sales as the basis of your argument when all it actually shows is that Apple Desktops are in decline and Apple currently sell more Mobile Devices than they do stationary devices. Surely that only means that Apple make [b]"More Desirable"[/b] mobile products than they make stationery products. They have a small proportion of the Computer Market and that seems to be shrinking by Apples Sales Figures not improving/increasing unless you insist that a Cell Phone is a Computer which can do everything a Computer can. Also the movement to 7 inch screens at the expense of Large Screen TV type formats seems just as nonsensical with the current sales of TV's it's the bigger the better they are not shrinking to the 7 inch Format but expanding to 50 + Inches as the desired format. What I think would be a more accurate depiction of Apples Sales Figures is that they have positioned themselves out of Computers into the Fashionable Mobile Market where they have a High Turnover in damaged devices requiring often replacement of the broken devices polluting the Land Fill with Toxic Chemicals and worse still wasting limited resources on what are effectively Throw Away Devices with a increasingly short shelf life. If anything it just proves that Apple is in the process of moving out of Computers all together. Not that Slates or Phones are replacing computers. :) Col

jwfinch
jwfinch

In my opinion, probably not any time soon considering current technology. Maybe the same can be said for the tablet vs. the desktop discussion. I do not believe I want to start a 100 jpeg photo corrections session with my tablet. Nor do I want to enter a 250 employee payroll or type a 2,500 word document with my tablet. Tablets and laptops are nice in the hotel room and when visiting relatives. Other than that, I am staying with my desktop attached to my 24" ASUS and sound system along with a real keyboard when starting Photoshop, Excel, Quicken, etc.

brian.smith
brian.smith

and other completely falsely premised discussions. What is going on here? This is an apples and oranges argument which has nothing to do with computing. What's a desktop? What's a tablet? What a waste of time. There's no way in the world I would replace my large screen, full sized keyboard, DVD/CD drive, audio system and connectability with a tablet; ever. Except when I am out and about and don't want to lug the components around with me, don't have anywhere to put them down or plug them in. What I do want is my data - so cloud and synching are vital - and my software and a consistent usage environment/way of working. This could open the door to Windows 8. As for tablet versus desktop; please, let's move on.

jfuller05
jfuller05

I don't think the desktop/personal computer experience will ever die. I think the only change will be the device that your mouse, keyboard, and monitor connect to. Instead of having a huge piece of furniture you'll have something maybe the size of a cigarette pack or something. Instead of the desktop PC being a piece of living room furniture or office furniture it will be smaller, thinner, and maybe just connect to your monitor. Also, it may be that it's even powered by a server several hundred miles away.

zazimi
zazimi

It's probably already been said, but I'm not reading through 50+ comments :P I have no clue why people keep talking about screen size... you can always use an external display and bluetooth keyboard/mouse... let's get real here, I wanted to make an arguement about how I wanted to see a tablet run Autodesk 3ds, but seriously, it doesn't have to. With cloud computing using clusters of servers to do things faster than any ONE desktop could, I could see tablets, more or less, becoming portals to online computing. Don't get me wrong, I love my desktop, and will be building a new powerhouse soon, and will continue to do so (likely) for years to come... as it's already been stated multiple times, 10 years is a LONG time, I'd venture to guess that tablets will go obselete for something better within the next 10 years, seriously... and if anything, HUD computing / "Augmented Reality" will take over... my 2c, take it or leave it...

dogknees
dogknees

People I can't see working on a tablet unless it's a big one on a stand on a desk. Oh wait, that's a desktop. Architects using CAD programs, photo-realistic rendering, lighting design and simulation,... Musicians recording, mixing, processing, .... Artists using digital tools like Painter Process Controllers who monitor automated equipment. Think power-stations, processing lines, sewerage plants,... Engineers designing pretty much anything and using CAD/CAM, simulation and CFD, circuit emulation and PCB layout,... Programmers using IDEs, emulators and other tools. Seems to add up to a lot of people, the world is not white-collared. The "enterprise", whatever that is, isn't more important the the SMBs out there. SMBs apparently employ more people that "enterprises".

firstaborean
firstaborean

Just as the automobile never replaced the freight train, tablets and "smart" 'phones won't replace the fully-functional computer. They're nice little adjuncts, but, when there's real work to be done, a real workhorse (or workstation, if you will) is needed. I notice that comments before mine all said the same thing, but I wished to enter more than a mere "I concur."

artivision
artivision

I've bought 2 laptops in 15 years - for particular purposes.Once used they were shelved as they could not compete with the desktops - and they could not be upgraded (like a desktop).Portable products cannot compete with my old 386 so why are they being "pushed" by manufacturers.Because they want to "consumerise" their products to create turnover and therefore profit..I accept there is a market for consumers who have low end uses for their machines and thats fine.I cannot see me ever buying or using a tablet.PS I'm looking for a "dumb" phone - I believe this would greatly assist my productivity.

l_e_cox
l_e_cox

To totally defeat the PC (desktop) you also have to totally defeat that philosophy. On the one hand, PCs give office workers more flexibility and independence by being able to run programs locally as well as communicating with the mainframe. And on the other hand, PCs bring the computing power of the office into the home, enabling a whole new wave of "freelancers" and giving the individual a data store and computing functionality that is personalized, and as secure (or private) as the home environment can be made to be. Politically, this tended to enable and "free" individuals. There is a competing social-economic-political philosophy. In this vision of the future, security from some vague external threat ranks above all else in importance. So the group is reigned in and put under much tighter control. Any stepping out of line can cost you big; the survival of the whole group depends on each member staying in line. I can see how this would be the preferred approach in certain settings. But for all of humanity? I am seriously unconvinced. And so were the inventors of the PC. Will the PC "become less popular" or will it be FORCED out of existence? This will indicate to me the direction society is taking.

fletchoid
fletchoid

When laptops became more powerful and affordable, the question was "will laptops replace desktops?" If mobility was a major requirement, the answer was yes, but if you were going to sit in a comfortable chair, and type for several hours, the answer was NO. Laptops replaced desktops for people whose computer needs would best be met by a small, mobile device that did not require a dedicated office and desk area. Many laptop owners also had a dedicated office computer at a desk as well, which they used when long, comfortable session were required. I think laptops and netbooks will be replaced by tablets. There will always be a percentage of people who will choose a desktop for some or all of their computer needs.

Darren B - KC
Darren B - KC

The other day, I was watching a documentary about the Mexican drug cartels and all the dope that gets smuggled into the USA. I was wondering, where do most of the drugs go? But after reading the headline of this article on TR today, I think I have the answer to that question. I find it almost embarrassing to see that a well respected tech site like TR constantly spewing this ridiculous sort of inane babble about the "demise of the desktop" at the hands of mobile devices. If I didn't know any better, I'd say that nobody at TR owns a desktop computer, or has even used one in the last 10 years. Seriously. You know those people out there... they're regular family folks, moms and dads, grandparents... at some point, they bought a desktop computer, maybe even spent a lot of money on it, but they've never been really "into" the computer. They played some cheesy games on it for a laugh, maybe used it to balance the checkbook with some home finance software... perhaps they even kept some basic household records or did thier taxes with it. But generally, it ended up sitting in a corner somewhere and now only gets used for Facebook, Twitter, and checking email. THOSE are the people who are the ideal target for mobile devices. The desktop computer turned out to be just a little more than they really need, and a large screen and giant hard drive are not being utilized. The tablet would work well for them because it's relatively low maintenance and lets them do all that mindless social networking crap and play some more cheesy and simple games... at the dinner table, on the sofa, or in the car. Hey, I suppose in some places that would be considered "progress". For anyone else who doesn't fall squarely in that niche of people, the tablet will be, at most, a supplement to thier desktop, but it's unlikely that it will EVER be a replacement. And I'm still referring to a large number of home users. Try telling office workers, graphic designers, film/newswspaper/magazine editors, lawyers, game designers, network administrators, web designers, government workers, military personnel, 3D artists, PC gamers,... and a slew of others I shouldn't have to mention, that they are going to give up thier desktops for a 7~10 inch lackluster screen, a cumbersome and clumsy OS (regardless of brand) and no keyboard or mouse, with which to do all thier computing on. Oh yeah, THAT should go over well... *facepalm* As for me, you can have my full-sized tower, SLI'd GeForce GTX 470s, dual Dell UltraSharp IPS 24" monitors, 6TB of hard drive space, 16 USB ports, Blu-ray burner, G510 keyboard, and MX1000 wireless mouse when you pry them from my extremely cold, dead fingers. I even work in IT... and I STILL don't have a use for a tablet or other mobile device! (No, I don't use my smartphone for IT related apps.) Demise of the desktop?. Given the current state of the world, we're more likely to witness the second coming of Christ before mobile devices take over.

mbouckaert
mbouckaert

No. They're complementary. Same for portable computing and fixed. OTOH, if you were to ask if the existence of tablets will change the way personal computers are deployed, ... Different answer. I believe that the (local) network IS the computer. Access from a desktop / laptop / fridge-located / phone / is a matter of physical convenience for a given app at a given time. Sure, it doesn't fit in the monolithic WinApple approach. Time to break that mold.

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Literally. Those 5" and 7" screens are simply too small to see anything useful, even with my cheaters. I find myself shaking my head at the push to cram more and more into smaller and smaller screens.

jgmsys@yahoo.com
jgmsys@yahoo.com

A tablet simply lacks the muscle that a high-end desktop provides, though I often wish a high-end desktop didn't eat so much power. Running a high performance desktop all day that sports a 750-watt power supply is not my idea of a green solution, and my electric bills prove it. Desktops are also the only place to keep truly private data. The cloud is nonsense. There is simply certain data that should NEVER be in the cloud under any circumstances. Cloud-mania is only Big Brother pushing himself on us on the one hand, and concerted efforts to get private data easily retrieved on the other. Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. That is the nature of wisdom. And clearly, too many specimens of the so-called "wise man" lack it.

cheyCoder
cheyCoder

To focus on home use for a minute, where tablets have a good use for consuming content, I still love having a traditional desktop as the center of my computing experience. I love having a dedicated space with a desk and my large monitor. I have some nice small speakers with a t-amp and an old but excellent 12 inch Sony subwoofer for a great sounding 2.1 sound setup. It's just great to grab some coffee, fire up some background music and read through some newsletters, blogs, or something. I certainly hope future tablets can attach to some sort of dock that can give that same experience. I'm still weighing whether a tablet fits my needs, but with my smartphone and a desktop, I really enjoy the experience I currently get. Also, as others have pointed out, laptops are truly great for giving one portability and horsepower. Open the lid and you've got everything you need in a small efficient package. And you don't need to keep holding the thing :)

rwbyshe
rwbyshe

Patrick, I simply don't understand why you guys and your editors have to spin your articles simply to drive the level of drama up!!! Knock off the overstated speculation about the demise of a whole side of computing. The tablet is definitely here to stay. Has it found it's niche yet? I don't personally think so. What's wrong with it on the whole. You still need to prop it up and use an external keyboard to make it efficient for most applications. Sure you can "view" things, and you can create an email using the onscreen touch keyboard, but is it efficient... hardly! So what does a tablet with a stand to prop it up and a keyboard to use for inputs equal? Simple it's a laptop! Right now the next best thing to the tablet for portability is the netbook type computer and they're not my fav either. So is there going to be a "demise of the desktop", not hardly. Right now we have 4 categories of mobile computing. The cell phone, tablets, laptops (netbook/notebook) computers, and the time proven desktop. Each of those type of "computers" will settle deeper into their own niche of usage and sales potential. That is a given. Will the desktop experience a "demise"? I don't see that happening unless the technology changes drastically with something new that would make tablets, laptops, and desktops obsolete all at the same time. So please quit with the "drama" headlines posing a situation that you know isn't gonna happen anytime soon, just for the sake of misleading readers to what you've written. Tech Republic used to be a great site to come to for the purpose of reading what's going on in technology. In the last couple of years the headlines and articles themselves are more like what I'd expect to find in the Star "magazine" found on store checkout counters with all the drama you and your editors are implementing. From a member and readers perspective, please cease and desist. Nuff said... those are my thoughts on your article!

joeller
joeller

I have never had a tablet. As I understand it, to use a tablet you have to have a cell phone plan that includes data. And to make it worth while it would have to be unlimited data. Compared to the total I currently pay for cell phone and DSL there is no way I would be willing to spend all the extra money needed to enable a tablet particularly not in this economy with a mortgage and retirement staring me in the face. And if my cell phone connectivity is any indication of the connectivity I would have with a tablet, then there is no point in having a machine which is unable to connect to its data 90% of the time.

call.center
call.center

IT is an amazing world. Did you know that every thing has it own standard specification and requires a specific standard a nd specification. IT means Human eyes and Hands require a specific hardware in order to work on a specific software. for example, a very small keyboard and monitor will not allow you to function properly. Very small hardware is very easy to be stolen. Mobile Technologies are good for emergency mobile responses. They are also good for kids.

derek_bell
derek_bell

I have an iPad, but it has a long way to go before I'm going to ditch my 27" iMac. I need a big screen for many things. If anything, I'm looking forward to an iMac with a bigger screen, not reducing to a smaller one. Also, the mouse is critical to many of the apps I use. My partner is a designer and he had issues with Apple's Trackpad on his iMac using Adobe products - the mouse is here for a few years yet along with the desktop and keyboard in my opinion. At the end of the day, it depends on what the user needs to do.

Alienwilly
Alienwilly

Patrick Gray is delirious. The only reason I even use a laptop is to check a clients network to see if it is functioning correctly before I start to work on it. Big monitors, high performance, recliner chairs, mice and keyboards rule for almost anything you could want to do except airplane travel. They are easier to fix and have more parts available to work with. Most tablets and pads are delicate pieces of proprietary junk. And just wait till you get the tab for all those sorry apps you have to pay for. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.

TNT
TNT

I feel like there was a bait and switch in this article. The headline implies the demise of the desktop, but then a few paragraphs in we discover that it is the desktop PC's role as "the center of our computing hub" that faces elimination. This clarification I largely agree with. At work a tablet would be useless -- my dual 23" monitors are vital to my productivity -- but at home this change is already taking place. My desktop PC streams music and video to my Xbox, stores documents that I access and edit on my laptop, and personal email is read and responded to as it comes in on my Android phone. The only time I actually need to sit at my desk is when I do graphic design or video editing, which isn't all that often. I plan to purchase an Intel-based Surface tablet early next year which, if there is a decent docking station, will replace both my laptop and desktop PC. At that time the desktop will likely be converted into a file and print server.

TheLip95032
TheLip95032

The tablet can take over from the desktop ( which these days is most likely a laptop that can be connect to monitor and keyboard) when it has all the apps that the desktop has but most importantly a keyboard. I have used on screen keyboards for a long time and they are fine for a quick response to email,etc but not writing a proposal or a design document. So when tablets have all the apps+monitor(tablet screens are ok)+keyboard the they can , oh but wait isn't that what a laptop is .

bsauer
bsauer

As much as tablet proponents want to say that desktops are obsolete it is just not so. There are many applications in the business world that require large screen real estate and specialized equipment connected to the computer to perform the necessary functions. Tablets don't have the connectivity, or functionality necessary to handle these situations and most tablet manufacturers are not looking to change this in the near future and some don't see the need to ever address this. For general use such as email, internet access and BASIC office applications, tablets can function quite well. So I can see the demise of a portion of the desktops that corporations currently use. Unfortunately for the foreseeable future tablets are just not productive enough to even consider using them instead of most current desktop deployments.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Not every business user needs mobility. When you can buy a tablet complete with accompanying docking station, external monitor, mouse, and keyboard for less than a similarly configured desktop, then businesses will begin to replace desktops for their non-mobile users. Until then, even if the processing power is there, why spend more? Desktops will continue to be less expensive for quite a while. They don't need wireless components, the processors don't have to be managed for power consumption or heat generation, and they're cheaper to repair or reconfigure.

trawlerman
trawlerman

There is no doubt about the value and rise of mobile computing, but it comes with some serious drawbacks. Often the screen is too small and you are forever expanding and contracting the page. The memory is finite, and will never reach what a desktop can accommodate, especially with a couple of Terabyte drives or more. Battery life has not kept pace so your are still largely tied to an electric outlet, removing much of the utility. Finally, to compensate, there is the push for the cloud computing. You will have to go a long way to convince me that (a) the security of my data is as good as my desktop, and (b) that I will always be able to access it as readily as my desktop. Long and short of it, I believe both technologies will continue to co-exist, with the mobile being a fair crutch while your away from your desk.

hrosita
hrosita

As I see it, tablets can replace the desktop if a person uses the computer only for surfing the internet, doing e-mail and accessing social networks. I have yet to see a tablet that will do Quicken, Photoshop, Turbotax, etc.

dogknees
dogknees

The problem is that there need to be enough servers to supply the grunt for the world's entire population of 3ds users. A lot of them have pretty potent rigs, so there's going to need to be a LOT of horsepower out there just waiting for people to use. Same for gamers. There would need to be enough power to match the high-end multi CPU and multi GPU beasts they run. All of them. Computing never has been, is not now, and never will be one-size-fits-all. If the "industry" want to change the model, that's fine, what's not fine is removing the options we have without providing a replacement that meets the needs and preferences of ALL current users. Preferences matter. I have no problem paying for extra performance if it's available. I like a big screen, I like to be able to run high-end apps when I need to without worrying whether my PC will handle it. I spec and build my PCs accordingly. Not having the option at all is not an acceptable situation to me.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I suspect most of these have embedded processors, not external desktop CPUs, although operators probably remote into them.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

I think we have a case of someone trying to morph a tablet into being a lightweight laptop and not quite making it.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

It is completely beyond me why anyone would watch movies or television shows on a 7" screen. If I was traveling and that was my only viewing option, I'd set the DVR before I left the house.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

stories and forums, I've not seen a tablet that lets me do that as easily as a normal desktop with as much ease as the desktop. The big screen to show both pages of the book at once allows me to see how it will print, too. Then my next major use is image manipulation to create books covers, I've tried a few friends' tablets and can't even get to first base in doing that on a tablet as it's not suited to it.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Most (all?) models are equipped with WiFi radios. Of course, this limits your connectivity to your home WiFi (if you have one) and public WiFi networks (questionable security, limited bandwidth, and sometimes have a service charge).

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"And just wait till you get the tab for all those sorry apps you have to pay for. " You have to pay for software for desktops and laptops too. Otherwise, you stuck your dismount.

cwarner7_11
cwarner7_11

So, you really aren't killing off your old PC- you are re-purposing it. Which means it will still be useful...

dogknees
dogknees

I was thinking of the people monitoring them rather than the embedded controllers.

cwarner7_11
cwarner7_11

I have a dumb phone- all it does is send and receive telephone calls (it may have some built-in games, but no camera, no data service, no music player, but a couple of optional ring tones and a vibration mode I find quite useful). Not only that, I do not pay for a monthly plan- I run down to the corner and pay cash when I run out of minutes... On top of all that, I get a kick out of my associates with their smart phones who are always asking to borrow my phone because I have better and more consistent coverage than they do... Of course, I ove in a "3rd World" country, so our technology may differ somewhat from what is available to you...

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

for ATT home DSL customers. Even when other customers have to pay for the connections. Sign on with the primary user account & password. Starbucks hates me! B-)

joeller
joeller

There is Open Office available on the web for free. IE comes with the OS. That is all my wife needs. We have in addition Office 97 Pro in which still works just fine. Because of my job I have paid for SQL Server developer edition the cost of which is minimal, and I get free editions of Visual Studio. I pay a minmal price for DSL. So no I don't have to pay for software to do what I need to do on our laptops and desktops, and I don't have to pay wireless data connectivity which is never available.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

and the people importing them only import the smart phones - the dumb idiots.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

We not likely to deploy an RT device where I work, so I've already mentally erased their existence. You're correct with your 'Pro' qualifier.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

There are no-cost equivalents for tablets too. Everything you list will run on the Windows 8 tablets when they're released. Alienwilly made a point of the cost of apps for mobile devices. My point is that the cost of apps is just as much of a factor (or non-factor) for desktops and laptops as it is for mobile devices.