The traditional PC is far from dead, but its continued decline is inexorable. The reason? Choice.
After the PC became a household item, its status went unchallenged for years. Yes, there were innovations: laptops came along, computers gradually got smaller, high-speed Wi-Fi replaced tedious cables and dial-up modems. But upgrades were driven by Moore's Law and the commoditization of components, not changes in the basic premise.
PCs are still more powerful than competing computing devices, and they're essential for tasks that none of these alternatives can manage. But smartphones and tablets are powerful in their own right. PCs might be fixtures in the workplace, but for years, most of the time users spent in front of those screens was dedicated to surfing the Internet, reading email or watching videos. Mobile devices handle these -- the most common of user tasks -- more conveniently and intuitively than their PC forefathers, and they represent the first time that consumers have had a fundamental choice in their computing options; that is, the ability to purchase a device that doesn't look like the machines at work.
The bring-your-own-device (BYOD) phenomenon is a result of this choice. At first, new gadgets simply provided another way to read and watch digital content, leaving the PC's dominance as a production tool unchallenged. But choice permitted workers and businesses to come at productivity from new angles, and to develop workflows suited for the new devices. PCs still rule the enterprise empire, but where there was something akin to a technological hegemony only a few years ago, there's now a growing number of disruptions in the making.
[ HTC's One is another promising Android phone to watch. Read For HTC, The One Can't Come Soon Enough. ]
That's why the traditional PC will never rebound. The tablet explosion isn't an end in and of itself; it's the first phase of a larger shift in computing. Not convinced? Consider the following four facts:
1. All-in-ones are nice -- but the multi-screen experience is here to stay.
There's clearly demand for a device that does it all -- something like the Surface Pro, or for some users, the iPad. But as Forrester analyst JP Gownder recently noted, even the upstart mobile market is becoming increasingly fragmented and difficult to define. Some of this has to do with user preference for one operating system over another. Cost is another factor. But there's also mounting evidence that both consumers and employees are happy to own multiple devices. The reason? Users like to choose the best option -- or combination of options -- for a given task or situation.
To some extent, this trend causes cannibalization; that the PC market has stalled while the tablet market soars attests to as much. And as much as people might want to use multiple devices, there are obviously limits to how much any given person or business is able to spend. But in the course of a single day, an average person might use a smartphone for email and light reading, a tablet for games or to watch Hulu, and a traditional computer for "serious" work.
The variety of devices will only increase as new phablets and an anticipated wave of 8-inch Windows 8 tablets hits the market. Mobile devices are not only cheaper than new PCs but also more likely -- at least for now -- to offer attractive generation-over-generation enhancements. This has led many users to upgrade their mobile devices at regular intervals, a trend that's likely to continue. Conventional computers face a different reality; they will still have a big place, but their diminished role and higher prices will give consumers less incentive to frequently replace aging models. PCs will endure in some form as part of a multi-screen ecosystem, but their best days are behind them.
2. Tablets will continue to encroach on the PC's territory.
The extent to which new devices can replace PCs is limited. Adobe, for example, is preparing to bring Lightroom, one of its most popular products for photographers, to iOS. But the iPad Mini's screen is too small to be ideally suited to the heavy photo-editing for which the program is known. Can the software retain its granular functionality when translated to a touch-based interface? The vast majority of legacy tasks face these kinds of questions, and in many cases, such as programming or document creation, a mouse and keyboard make more sense than a touchscreen and finger.
At the same time, although many business people use tablets for mostly email or on-the-go access to shared documents, tablets also have allowed doctors to speed up turnarounds between patients, enabled field workers go where no laptop can venture, and retail to do business faster. PCs will remain indispensable in the workplace for the foreseeable future, but their erosion will continue.