In the Mobile-First Era, Don’t Forget the PC

The last few years have seen a fascinating shift in storylines as well as data around the storylines. Many of us who research consumer trends in the industry focus quite a bit on the endpoint because they serve as gateways to broader software and services experiences. For this reason, our eyes have been squarely on studying what people do on smartphones, PCs, and tablets. Since 2010, when the iPad hit the scene, the role of the PC has come under great scrutiny. Is it a dying form factor? Is it something consumers no longer need? Is the smartphone the only device humans will use someday? Will the tablet kill the PC? These questions, and many more, have been a focal point in the consumer hardware discussion.

The debate is relevant because it informs businesses on where to focus their resources. It is abundantly clear the smartphone is the central and primary computing device for billions of people. Knowing this means any business should no doubt employ a mobile-first strategy with their software and services. Mobile-first simply means to assume the smartphone is the primary engagement point with your product. Of course, this will vary by the type of application. Something like Netflix for example, is primarily consumed on larger screen devices like PCs, TVs, and tablets. Microsoft Office and other enterprise or commercial applications are primarily used on PCs and Macs. In all these cases, where the application and workflow are better on larger screens, they still have a complimentary mobile experience. We live in a multi-device world where most humans in developed markets like the US, Europe, China, etc., use both a PC and a smartphone for varying things throughout the day. But, because the smartphone is the computer we have with us at all times, it is crucial for even PC-first applications to have complimentary experiences on the smartphone.

But, when it comes to consumer software and services, the strategy gets flipped. Mobile-first, or mobile-only, has been the mantra for developers and consumer software strategists for the last few years. But I’d like to argue that even many of these mobile-only apps or solutions can benefit from a complimentary PC experience as well.

Interestingly, global data tells us the PC is still used heavily on a daily basis across nearly all demographics.

As you can see, the amount of time spent per day on PCs is still significant. Our estimates are that ~1.3 billion people personally own a PC, compared to the nearly three billlion people who own a smartphone. The global average of time spent using a PC each day by those ~1.3 billion people is 3.54 hours per day. What became clear a few years ago was the smartphone was not necessarily taking time usage time away from the PC but was adding to the total time spent using devices and being on the internet each day by its owners. Looking back through years of data, daily time spent using a PC has stayed roughly flat while daily time using a smartphone has grown dramtically. People seem to be using both devices independently and in tandem to browse the web more, communicate more, play games more, watch videos more, be on social media more, shop more, etc. It is also important to note that globally, millennials still spend a lot of time on their PCs as well. The fallacy is to think the only way to reach millennials is with a mobile app. While a mobile app is the primary way to reach millennials, the data suggests it would be a mistake to not also offer them some way to engage with your software or services while they are at their PC as well.

The PC is still an important engagement point even in the mobile-first era. However, the strategy for bringing mobile experiences to the PC needs to understand and utilize the device’s benefits. The worst thing any developer or business can do is just duplicate their mobile strategy for the PC. These hard lessons were learned when many apps and services failed because they just duplicated their desktop experiences on mobile and did not take advantage of the smartphones unique advantages.

If you agree with my logic, the debate will turn to whether just make a website or make an app. To me, the path is clear — make an app. Both Windows and Apple offer app stores and, in many cases, the ideas I’ll share make more sense as an app rather than a browser experience. Take Twitter for example. Twitter is a mobile-first experience and a primary engagement point. Yet, the website and their own desktop client app are pretty poor in comparison to other client side apps for macOS and Windows 10. I’d argue Twitter is losing a significant engagement point on the PC, given how much time people spend browsing the web for news and entertainment while on their PCs. Thinking of millennials, Snapchat is another example that comes to mind. We know millennials spend a lot of time on their PCs and millennials with Macs engage quite heavily with iMessage on their Mac. The value of being able to text and message friends from the device you are in front of, in this case the PC, makes a lot of sense. Snapchat’s chat app is the sticky point for many millennials. I can argue even if Snapchat brought their chat client to the desktop it would make a lot of sense. The counter-argument is to say it isn’t that hard to pick up your smartphone and open the app and do what you want to do. However, having observed a range of consumers who have both desktop and mobile apps of the same software, there is no arguing that being able to do what you want or need to do on the device you are using is far superior. While it seems easy enough to just pick up your smartphone to use an app you don’t have on your desktop, it misses the reality of the increased friction in that experience. I use Slack for example for a wide variety of work and personal things and if Slack was not available on the desktop I would not use it nearly as much as I do.

I can see many cases where Instagram could benefit from a smart desktop app. Maybe Facebook could as well or, at least, bring Facebook Messenger to the desktop as an app. Most companies want to just offer a browser-based PC experience but, in that scenario, your experience just gets buried in the many number of tabs consumers have open at any given time. Don’t make your PC experience just a tab in a browser — it will get lost. Apps offer rich notifications and a more visual experience. For this reason, I think the best strategy to re-engage with your customers on the PC is via an app, not a website.

Being mobile-first is the right strategy. Prioritize the mobile experience when you know that is the primary way your customers will engage. Just don’t forget your customers also spend many hours per day in front of their PCs and, in some cases, it is wise to think about how best to offer a complimentary PC experience in the hope you can increase your total engagement time with your customers.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

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