Putting Together The Pieces of the Personal Computing Puzzle

by John Kirk   |   January 17th, 2013

images-34As I read other’s thoughts on personal computing, I am sometimes struck by the fact that we tend to view the world the way it was rather than the way it is. Not only are we not good at seeing the future of personal computing, we’re not even very good at seeing its present.

With that in mind, I thought I’d take a look at some of the new pieces of the personal computing puzzle – smartphones, tablets, hybrids and phablets – in order to speculate on how those pieces might be fitting together in new and changing configurations.

Zero Computers

Hard as it may be for us to believe, most of the world – residents of third world countries, children, seniors and those who simply have no interest in computing – still don’t own even a single computing device. (Believe it or not, my thirty-something next-door neighbors do not own a computer.) But this is all rapidly changing.

The smartphone is allowing millions upon millions of former non-users to put the power of the computer in their pocket. The smartphone is small, relatively inexpensive and more powerful than the computers that were used to land men on the moon. Further, the introduction of the touch user interface has made computing more accessible to the young, the old, the computer illiterate and the computer phobic.

“In the fourth quarter of 2012, mobile PC shipments decreased 11 percent while desktop PC shipments declined 6 percent year-on-year,” said Isabelle Durand, principal research analyst at Gartner.

We are inundated with stories of how computer sales are declining. But those are desktop and laptop sales. Sales of personal computing devices – phones and tablets – are booming.

Takeaway #1: Personal computing is growing and growing rapidly.

One Computer

Yesterday, if you only had one computer, that computer was likely to be a desktop. Or possibly a laptop.

Today, if you only have one computer, that computer is likely to be a smartphone. The power of the internet, email, texting, phoning, etc. – all in your pocket, all for a relatively reasonable price. People from the remotest portions of the globe are using smartphones to conduct business and enhance their personal lives.

Tomorrow, if you only have one computer, that computer may be a tablet. A tablet with a dumb phone (data free, no monthly payment) is a powerful combination. The tablet is less portable than the phone but its added battery life and screen size makes it a formidable stand-alone computer.

Takeaway #2: The first computer that most people will own is likely going to be a phone or a tablet, not a laptop or desktop.

Two Computers

In the past, many of us used to own both a desktop and a laptop computer. As laptops came down in price and increased in power and portability, most moved away from desktops and toward laptops as their one and only computing device.

Today, the laptop and smartphone combination is extremely popular – the laptop for our heavy duty computing and the smartphone for computing on the go.

In the future, the two-computer combination of choice will be the smartphone and the tablet. Both the phone and the tablet have the same touch operating system so the learning curve is almost nonexistent and data transfer is a breeze.

Hard as this may be for geeks like us to fathom, the tablet is all the high-end computer that most people need. Spreadsheets like Excel and heavy-duty word processing programs like Word might be de ri·gueur in the Enterprise, but they are anathema to the average computer user. Asking most computer users to buy a laptop or desktop is like asking a gardener to buy a backhoe in order to do their gardening. A backhoe is indispensable for professional construction workers – but most of us aren’t professional construction workers and most of us aren’t professional accountants, programmers or page layout designers either. We don’t need professional computers to do the work we most often do. We just need what works.

As an aside, I am intrigued by the idea of a computer watch and tablet combination. The watch would serve the purpose of making and taking calls, texts, short emails, etc, notifying us of incoming and upcoming events, allowing us to see small snippets of text, graphics and videos, allow us to use voice input when voice input is appropriate and allow us to rapidly reference programs that rely on geofencing and geolocation.

No one is even proposing such a device at this time. I only mention it because I can easily see how such a watch would take care of our low end, on-the-go, computing needs while our tablets would handle the rest of our computing tasks. Whatever the computer watch turns out to be, if anything, I’m sure that it will be as different from what I envision as the long-expected iPod phone differed from the iPhone that Apple finally provided us.

Takeaway #3: The phone and the tablet may be all the computing power that many will ever need.

Three Or More Computers

For those of us capable of purchasing three or more computing devices, the most obvious solution is some combination of smartphone, tablet and laptop or desktop.

If you had told me in 2005 that people would be buying three or more computing devices, each costing $500 and up, I would have argued against it. First, it would be cost prohibitive. Second, it would be counter-intuitive. People want convenience, not complexity. Why buy several devices when one will do?

Yet today we’re moving more and more toward a multi-screen world and – I would argue – more and more away from multi-purpose hybrids. We’re moving toward several computing tools that do specific things well rather than a single tool that tries to do everything well. How can this be?

As to cost, well, we pay for what we value. Smartphones and tablets do some tasks much, much better than laptops and desktops do. It’s not a question of paying for three computing devices. It’s a question of paying for three tools that excel at performing three very differing tasks.

A gardener buys both a shovel and a trowel because they perform very different tasks. He doesn’t regret the fact that he is buying two shovels — one large and one small. He focuses on what he is trying to accomplish, not on how he can use a shovel as a trowel or a trowel as a shovel.

As for convenience, well, it’s perfectly reasonable to think that we should have one computer perform all of our computing tasks. It’s perfectly reasonable – and perfectly inaccurate.

Notebooks and laptops, like shovels and trowels, do very different things. Trying to get one computer to perform both purposes provides us with a compromise, not an acceptable solution. Swiss Army knives are very useful on a camping trip. But when we’re not camping, we use spoons, forks, knives, corkscrews, etc., not a Swiss army knife. Similarly, a hybrid is useful if we’re in a situation where we’re forced to use only one device. Only most of us are never in that situation anymore.

“Tablets have dramatically changed the device landscape for PCs, not so much by ‘cannibalizing’ PC sales, but by causing PC users to shift consumption to tablets rather than replacing older PCs,” said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner. “Whereas as once we imagined a world in which individual users would have both a PC and a tablet as personal devices, we increasingly suspect that most individuals will shift consumption activity to a personal tablet, and perform creative and administrative tasks on a shared PC. There will be some individuals who retain both, but we believe they will be exception and not the norm. Therefore, we hypothesize that buyers will not replace secondary PCs in the household, instead allowing them to age out and shifting consumption to a tablet.”

This is a fascinating observation. Today, most view laptops and desktops as the one and only possible computing solution. There are even vicious fights on the internet in which commentators passionately deny that tablets are even personal computers at all.

But what about tomorrow? Tomorrow we’ll live in a world where tablets are our 1-on-1 devices and laptops and desktops are shared because of their cost and limited uses.

Takeaway #4: Our computing devices are diverging, not converging. We’re not looking for one tool to do it all, we’re looking to use the tool that best fits the task at hand.

Conclusion

None of this may seem controversial to you…or ALL of this may seem controversial to you. To me, the things I’ve stated are so obvious as to border on the trite. Yet I recognize that many – and probably most – do not share my views. Today we have many new personal computing pieces. How these pieces fit together will determine the future of computing. It’ll be fun to see what this puzzle looks like when it’s finally put together.

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?
  • Defendor

    Another Solid article.

    As someone who was a computer enthusiast since the 1980′s, back when it was far from mainstream, I was quick to agree that we are moving into a Post-PC world, while most were in denial.

    It is important to recognize that our own choices are not everyone’s choices/options. I plan to keep using PC’s for a good long time, but I was using them a good long time before everyone showed up. My tastes are not universal in this regard. But I also don’t have the common problem of assuming my tastes are universal, and likewise assuming the market will go where I will.

    My take on the rise and fall of the PC, is that the Internet was the real “Killer App” for the PC takeoff, NOT MS Office. Now that you can get that “Killer App” in your pocket, the importance of the PC in most lives will gradually fall back to where it was in per-internet: Back to hobbyist device.

    Tablets and Smartphones are the mainstream future of “Consumer Computing”. I say consumer computing, not in the pejorative sense like some label tablets a “consumption device”, but in need of a term to differentiate from “Personal Computers” (laptop/deskotp subcategory of Consumer Computing) that we are moving beyond.
    Even though I am something of anachronism, and plan to keep going with Desktop Computing, mine is 4 years old and my next “Consumer Computing” purchase will almost certainly be a tablet, not a PC upgrade.

    • mhikl

      Defender, we often keep close to us what was dear in our past and what memories our computers of old gave us, eh.
      I still have my old crystal radio, rarely use my ham radio, have speakers and sound systems I purchased from Radio Shack in university days, and my watches sit at the back of my sock drawer. I even have my old Mac computers though I haven’t cranked one up in eons. Each in its own way does something better, or curiously different, from what has followed as new and improved. The only things I don’t use are CD players and tape decks. They seem but the bridges to better things to come.

      My upgrade to the Mac mini will probably be my last dt computer.

      • Defendor

        :D

        My Desktop Speakers are Radio Shack Minimus 7, that must be about 30 years old, and I have an Commodore Amiga 1000 in a box somewhere.

    • jfutral

      “But I also don’t have the common problem of assuming my tastes are universal, and likewise assuming the market will go where I will.”

      That is a difficult trap to avoid, particularly from an arm chair “analyst” position such as my own. But then, sometimes what is considered objective is over rated the best position to take is the one I can understand, and that is usually based on the decisions I make and why I make them. But then it is good to remember those decisions are the one _I_ make, not the ones everyone should or will make.

      “My take on the rise and fall of the PC, is that the Internet was the real “Killer App” for the PC takeoff, NOT MS Office. Now that you can get that “Killer App” in your pocket, the importance of the PC in most lives will gradually fall back to where it was in per-internet: Back to hobbyist device.”

      I couldn’t agree more.

      Joe

    • http://twitter.com/bradpdx Brad Price

      “The Internet was the real “Killer App” for the PC takeoff, NOT MS Office.”

      Bingo bango. Most people don’t think this, but say it out loud and suddenly it seems obvious.

  • mhikl

    Clear and succinct, Kirk. I am finding that the power of apps on my iPad v3 are taking me further from my computer, my Macbook sits patiently on the shelf, my dumb phone serves my needs in what it is meant to do. Until a wrist phone as you describe comes true, my iPt and cell phone are inconvenient travel partners and my iPad my most immediate device. My computer is for storage, the holder of media and data I still use faithfully or occasionally, and what I use summarily are on the two mobile devices that begin with “i”.

    The journey you describe seems obvious, after it is read, but how you say it makes more clear the possibilities of the tablet I had not yet synchronized in my thoughts. That is the beauty of mobility at the present; it is still a learning experience for the obvious is not yet obvious to most.

    Aside: Following a three year pattern of introducing new products, could the iWatch be Apple’s next introduction? Was that why it shelved the little wristwatch capable nano?

    • FalKirk

      “… could the iWatch be Apple’s next introduction?” – mhikl

      I would very much like to see an iWatch, but I don’t think it’s in the cards. Apple’s recent Nano efforts have been baffling. They seem like a company that has no clue as to what form factor they think works best. They’re experimenting. This is exactly the opposite of how Apple works everywhere else. They alway seem so sure of themselves. Sometimes with bad results. Often with great results. But always sure of themselves. Not with the Nano.

      The Nano is the perfect platform for an iWatch. Small enough. Could easily handle a subset of iOS apps. But Apple has moved towards a watch-like design, away from a watch-like design and then sidewards. Their may be a method behind their madness – I hope so – but I’m not counting on it.

      • Rich

        John, Apple has stumbled in the past. The Cube and Ping are two examples, and they were developed while Steve Jobs was around. Don’t read too much into whatever’s happening with the Nano.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1573495479 Rene Stein

          Apple has stumbled a lot more times in the past, not just with Ping and the Cube. It is just that their successes far overshadow their failures.

          The Nano is perhaps one product that Apple can use to feel things out with a variety of strange ideas. They tried out voice control only, probably learned some lessons, they tried wearable, probably learned some lessons, and now they are trying out micro-Pads, and will probably learn some lessons.

          Great companies learn from their pasts and from their failures.

        • FalKirk

          I wasn’t trying to criticize the iPod Nano. I was trying to point out that, with the Nano, Apple doesn’t seem to be consistently moving towards an iWatch…or towards anything. Now contrast that with the Apple TV. It’s hard to tell exactly where Apple is headed, but they do appear to be very purposeful in their efforts. In other words, they seem to know where they are headed, even if they haven’t been able to create the device they envision…yet.

      • mhikl

        “Apple’s recent Nano efforts have been baffling. They seem like a company that has no clue as to what form factor they think works best. They’re experimenting. This is exactly the opposite of how Apple works everywhere else.” Kirk

        I agree and this is most troubling. Tim is no Steve. Steve’s genius was his sharp eye to detail. I was particularly struck by the story of his assessment of bicycles. If I remember correctly, he walked away with regret. The design did not fit his standards. I think there is confusion in Apple land but then maybe there is a plan. What if the nano wrist watch was pulled until it can be perfected? That is the only logical reason I can muster for that debacle.

        • steve_wildstrom

          The non-touch iPods have always been Apple’s design playpen. Remember the iPod Photo. Or the no-display stick-of-gum nano? Those were both in Steve’s day.

      • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/his-divine-shadow His Shadow

        Apple’s recent Nano efforts have been baffling.

        Baffling like a fox. The key is in your own statement.

        This is exactly the opposite of how Apple works everywhere else

        Precisely. If a company that prides itself on it’s simple, regularly updated product line needs an avenue for form factor exploration, what better place than its dedicated MP3 player line? Despite the pundits, Apple’s enforced familiarity regarding it’s major product lines is a strength in selling to consumers. But obviously Apple feels that there must be some consumer facing device that allows them to play around with different designs, form factors and input methodologies without jeopardizing the trust they have built in the consumer space.

  • jfutral

    “I am sometimes struck by the fact that we tend to view the world the way it was.. ”

    Even here I find more people who remember things as _they remember_ things, not necessarily as it was, like the people who say everything the iPhone is already existed before. Well, only kinda sorta, but not really.

    Nice piece.

    Joe

  • Rich

    “I don’t think anybody has done a product that is the product that I see customers wanting. You can go through the products from all those guys…and none of them has a product that you can really use.” – Steve Ballmer, referring to the Surface.

    “If this was really what everyone was waiting for, there would have been long queues at Microsoft’s physical stores, and they would have flown out of the online store.” – A commenter.

    • steve_wildstrom

      Combining John’s piece and Avi Greengart’s, I looked for Surfaces at CES and saw exactly one–in the Nvidia booth (Surface uses a Tegra processor.) I’m told there were a couple of others scattered around, but the point is if something is a hot product, it’s going to be very visible at CES. I saw hundreds of iPads, iPhones, and Galaxy whatevers–and even some Windows Phone 8s. But Surfaces were extremely scarce and third-party Windows RT tablets were nowhere to be seen.

      • Rich Repplier

        My view is that Steve Ballmer is the wrong guy to lead Microsoft into the future.

        • FalKirk

          With the departure of Sinofsky, I think that Microsoft has committed to Balmer for at least another year.

        • OpenMinde

          The management of Microsoft mistakes taking a product (Windows) as the identity of the corporation (Microsoft) and wouldn’t let Windows go. Instead, they should view that Microsoft is a PC (personal computer) platform company and develop systems to fit for desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone, whether they are a single system (Windows), or multiple systems (mouse/keyboard, touch, etc.). IBM realized that it is a business machine company foremost, instead of a mainframe computing company. And IBM adapts and thrives.

          • jfutral

            “Microsoft mistakes taking a product (Windows) as the identity of the corporation”

            I know we all love to compare tech companies with car companies, so here I am with another comparison. This is why Luxury car makers use numbers for car names. The company is the brand, not the car. The car is the product. It’s a bit of a psychological play about how people relate to names vs non-names. But it is also a corporate strategy.

            Even major conglomerates have been trying to build a stronger brand for the larger holding company, such as Proctor and Gamble, because no customer should hold the product as more important than the company who makes it. Sort of. I did a poor job of explaining that. I hope that made sense.

            Apple, or at least Jobs, also played with that psychology when he never referred to “the” iPod/iPad/iPhone/Mac. He always used the product name as a personal noun.

            Joe

      • FalKirk

        “if something is a hot product, it’s going to be very visible at CES” – Steve Wildstrom

        Agreed. The lack of buzz surrounding the recently released Windows RT products was astounding.