The idea of a post-PC era has been around long enough now that most people think it’s a given that sales of desktop and laptop computers are in a permanent, spiraling decline.
The belief is that we’ll eventually reach a point where those dinosaurs of yesteryear will quietly vanish, except perhaps for some in quaint special applications. Reality, unfortunately, has a way of intruding on long-held beliefs.
Recently, I was chatting with my colleague at eWEEK, Chris Preimesberger, who told me of a discussion he recently had with veteran PC maker Michael Dell. The word from Dell is that sales of desktop and laptop computers are up. Chris says that this is because there are a lot of jobs that you simply can’t do with a phone.
To illustrate that, Michael Dell asked, “When your kid goes off to college, are you going to give him only a cell phone?”
Taken tens of thousands of times over, and expanding the view beyond college to the workplace, it’s easy to see why larger PC models are holding their own. There are simply some jobs, ranging from engineering to content creation, that need a larger form factor. While it’s certainly possible to type a term paper or a book on a tablet or even a phone, the issue isn’t about what’s possible, it’s about what’s practical.
But in reality, there’s more to it than just practicality. What’s happened to desktop and laptop personal computers is that the tools are now vastly better. Designers have learned important lessons from the mobile world in the creation of easy-to-use applications and interface design. Hardware designers are now making computers where the physical form factor fits the use and the needs.
For example, desktop computers have morphed from the box-and-monitor model that was the de facto shape for years into one where the form more nearly fits the function.
While box-and-monitor designs still abound (I’m typing this column on one), there are versions where the box is tiny and is sometimes affixed to the back of the monitor or to the wall or the side of a desk. Other versions put the computer and monitor into a single package, often with a touch-screen, such as the Lenovo Horizon that I reviewed in December.
This variety of form factors exists in every type of desktop and laptop PC, whether it’s made by Apple, Dell, HP or someone else. One of the problems with phones and tablets is that they’re stuck with a basic form factor that needs to meet every need, something no device can do well.
Why the Much-Hyped Post-PC Era Never Arrived
These products exist because someone is buying them. In fact a lot of someones are buying them as Chris Preimesberger reports. Those buyers include students, of course, but they go far beyond that.
Knowledge workers, content creators or simply workers who need to see a lot of information at one time need something that goes beyond the limited capabilities of phones and tablets. That call center operator you talked to on the phone recently was on a desktop computer because they need to see all of your details at once, and they need to be productive.
But there’s more to it than just the form factor. The companies that make desktop and laptop computers have learned a lot from watching the mobile world. Part of what they’ve learned is that simplicity rules.
Just as simple, inexpensive apps thrive in the world of phones, they’re also gaining a great deal of traction in other arenas. One of the things that Windows 8 and recent versions of Apple’s Mac OS X have offered is access to app stores where users can download a wide variety of applications directly without having to shop for and later install software from a box of CDs or DVDs.
For a while there were glitches, such as when Microsoft tried to force everyone into a touch-screen world with Windows 8, regardless of whether they had a touch-screen device. For a couple of years, the annoyances of Windows 8 threatened to drive desktop PCs into oblivion, except for those made by Apple.
The remarkably long lifespan of all those Windows XP machines was also a factor. But those models are absolutely obsolete and the withdrawal of XP technical support by Microsoft in 2014, no doubt, helped finally drive much of this surviving inventory into retirement in favor of Windows 7 or, to a lesser extent, Windows 8.
Now, things are changing. Microsoft is testing Windows 10, which looks like it’s the version of Windows that the company should have produced all along. Over at Apple, Mac OS X Yosemite has not only benefited from the lessons of the mobile world, but has embraced that world with a global paradigm that allows information to flow from device to device without impediments.
Microsoft has similar plans for Windows, so that your Windows Phone will offer similar experiences with the Windows version on your desktop or tablet and, in some cases, even run the same apps to make it much easier to share data between devices.
What’s happened is that instead of being overwhelmed by the mobile world, the desktop and laptop computer models that companies use every day have benefited from the lessons learned from those very mobile devices that were supposed to drive them into extinction. Mobile technology has only succeeded in making PC and application design more efficient and effective.
Instead of moving beyond PCs, the mobile world has helped PC designs evolve along with them. As a result, there is no post-PC era, but rather an era in which the device you use is the one that works the best at the time and under the circumstances.