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.
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.
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