PC Stands for Personal Choice

James King / May 8th, 2014

After reading Ben Bajarin’s recent article, Computing’s S-Curve, I thought it might be prudent to offer another perspective.

Before I get started, I want to state for the record there are few analysts in whom I place a great deal of stock. However, I find the “Bens” as I like to call them (Ben Bajarin, Benedict Evans and Ben Thompson) are particularly insightful; even when I don’t agree with them, their research and perspectives are always top notch. If the main purpose of analysis is to motivate thought and understanding, the services they offer to the technology community are an invaluable resource.

That being stated, let’s address the notion of “unfair comparisons,” particularly in the case of smartphones and PCs. It’s understandable why some people think the two devices should not be compared. Comparisons are normally drawn between things similar to one another. It’s fair to compare cars but how fair is it to compare a car to a truck? In that instance, it is the use case that will determine the utility of the comparison. I may determine in the comparison that a truck more fully suits my needs while someone else may determine a car is a better fit for their lifestyle. The key is context. If you are going to make a comparison between objects that have similarities and fundamental differences, it helps to know how both will be used in any given situation.

I’m a huge fan of smartphones and less a fan of PCs. I find I use a smartphone far more often than I use a PC. However, I rarely use my smartphone to watch TV or movies or do any input intensive tasks. When it comes to watching video, my TV (plus PS3, PS4, and Roku) is my device of choice. When it comes to performing input intensive or pixel precise tasks, the PC is my device of choice. It seems unreasonable to expect my smartphone to perform tasks for which other devices are more suitable. That is generally the way it goes. As Benedict Evans likes to state, it’s all different forms of glass. Absent any economic limitations, most people will choose whichever piece of glass is most suitable for any particular task.

Which is one of the reasons I don’t accept the notion the PC will ever “die.” Can anyone envision a world in which all work will be performed on the go? What sense would it make to use a tablet at a desk (at least not without a way to prop it up)? Even seated on a couch, why support the weight of a tablet when a laptop offers better ergonomics, greater screen real estate, and a tactile keyboard? (yes, I understand that there are many people who can type very well on glass but the superiority of tactile keyboards is well established) For that matter, why watch video on a tablet, a device I have to support in one or both hands, rather than watch an HDTV I don’t have to hold at all? Why game exclusively on a mobile device, like a smartphone or tablet, when a gaming console controller is just as light, has actual tactile controls, and much better ergonomics?

Use case almost always correlates to ergonomics and vice versa. Are smartphones good for pixel precise work? Not only is the answer no, it is apparent they never will be. The claim can be credibly made relatively few people need that capability but it doesn’t change the fact tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people actually do need it. How many need tactile keyboards? If software is indeed “eating the world,” you can safely make the assumption that at least tens of thousands of programmers will need them for the foreseeable future as well as hundreds of thousands of writers and journalists. How many use cases are there for a tablet which provides a large screen and high mobility? Hundreds of thousands to millions in health care and various logistical functions now have the tool to bring the power of personal computing wherever they are. It all just depends on what you need.

There is a saying, “The best gun is the one you have with you”. But no one denies there are circumstances when a pistol is more suitable than a rifle, a rifle is more suitable than a shotgun and a rocket launcher is more suitable than any of the former. We live in a time of greater personal computing diversity. The smartphone has put the power of a PC directly into our pockets. It’s the “gun” we almost always have with us and it’s amazingly powerful. But it’s only one of many useful form factors. The first for many but unlikely to be the only or last. Trucks didn’t disappear once better cars started being built. Motorcycles still roam the highways and byways of the world. As long as people have unique needs, they will choose the products that suit those needs. In computing, it is the unique ergonomics of each device that best determine how those needs are met.

So, as it relates to personal computing, nothing is truly “dying” … but everything is changing.

James King

James has over fifteen years of personal and professional experience in computing technology in a variety of roles, including system builder, UI/UX designer, product developer, consultant and entrepreneur. Though currently working in another field now, he’s still an avid follower of the industry as well as a passable dad and a pretty good golf coach.
  • englishmole

    I have to disagree. I see a future where your ‘desktop PC’ is nothing more than a dumb terminal, keyboard and mouse which will link over Bluetooth to the immensely powerful, 64-bit iPhone 8(?) in your pocket.

    That’s been Apple’s long-term plan all along.

    • klahanas
    • Glaurung-Quena

      “That’s been Apple’s long-term plan all along.”

      No, I’m afraid you are mistaken. Apple’s vision of the future is one in which it doesn’t matter what device you are using, your work is always there for you, automagically synced. True, it’s been hampered by mediocre execution of Icloud so far, but that’s where they are trying to get to.

      I know its quixotic of me, but I have to say (yet again) that the idea of using your phone as your desktop is just never going to happen.

      1. Phones cannot have heatsinks or fans in them, so phone CPUs are always going to be severely limited in terms of what they can do compared to laptops (let alone desktops) before they have to slow down and cool off.
      Also, Phones, especially phones from Apple, are always going to have limited amounts of RAM, because more ram requires more power, and far more people are going to want to buy a phone that doesn’t need midday charging than are going to want to buy a phone that they can use as their desktop. Here’s a discussion of why RAM limits matter. What it has to say about web apps can be extended to Java and Flash as well.

      2. Now I know that 90% of the time it doesn’t matter that your pocket computer cannot do heavy lifting, but think about the other 10% of the time — when you have to use that stupid intranet Java app from the 90’s that makes your laptop fan speed up, or when you discover a need to open that 1gb Excel file some idiot used as a database of everything, or whatever. Those times, you are going to suddenly run into a workflow problem — “crap, in order to do this thing I have to switch computers.” Not to mention, “crap, I have to own more than one computer to get this work done.”

      3. So your vision of the future comes true (probably not from Apple but maybe Samsung will be accommodating and make a pocket desktop/phone). You have examined all the kinds of computing you do in your life and have found ways to get everything done with phone apps. You sell your laptop and desktop because having one and only one computer for all your tasks is The Way of the Future. And then on the way to work before a big deadline, someone steals your phone on the subway. Or you drop it in the dishwater. Or you just plain drop it and it breaks. Yes, people lose and break laptops too, but far less often than phones, because you aren’t always 100% of the time carrying the laptop around with you, holding it in your hands. One frantic trip to the phone store to get a new computer because you’re on a super important deadline and you don’t have time to be dealing with setting it up and resynching all your data down from the cloud and and and… will cure anyone of the thought that using your pocket computer as your only computer is a good idea.

      • englishmole

        Just about everything you mention relies on technology not moving forward. But let me address each one in turn:

        1. Using the technology of 2014, you’re absolutely right. Using the technology of 2018 and beyond? Not so much.

        2. Since when has Apple cared about the rare occasion you might need a legacy technology?

        3. Really, I think you’re clutching at straws with this one.

        • Glaurung-Quena

          “Just about everything you mention relies on technology not moving forward.”

          Actually no. I seem to have failed to communicate at all, so I’ll try again.

          1. Architecture aside, the more work a CPU does, the more heat it generates. If you give it a better cooling solution, it can do more work. The laptop and desktop CPUs of 2020 will be far more capable than the phone CPUs of 2020, because a laptop or desktop can have a much higher thermal ceiling than a phone or tablet. (roughly 10x the watts for a laptop, 100x the watts for a desktop).

          2. Given the above, there are *always* going to be apps (and datasets*) that will use up everything the CPU can give and be begging for more. What apps those are will change over time (eg, office used to be a resource hog that brought older machines to their knees, nowadays not so much). Some of those apps are extremely niche. Others are more common. And who knows what new must-have resource hungry apps will be invented in the future? Any way you slice it, whatever the resource hungry apps happen to be, whether it’s this year or ten years from now, because of point #1, you will *never* be able to use those heavy lifting apps on a phone.

          *datasets –throw a big enough workload at a lightweight app and it becomes a heavyweight app.

    • James King

      It is very much possible that the PC will just be broken down to a set of peripherals for a smartphone. The obstacle that I see with that is if the smartphone can still be used for its phone features while it is tethered. But that problem can likely already be solved.

      • Space Gorilla

        I’d say it’s likely the processing power will be distributed, Glaurung-Quena covers some of the technical issues. But the end result is largely the same. Our screens all become our computers. The screen is the computer. Sometimes we need small screens and sometimes we need large screens. I’m also fairly certain Apple is working towards an Apple Network of Things.

      • jfutral

        Yeah. That only has to happen once! I was using my iPhone for my own “teleprompter” giving a pre-show announcement when the truck driver called me to tell me he was already there to pick up the gear. Much improvising and fumbling ensued.

        Didn’t someone try to sell a phone-into-desktop computer about two years ago? I don’t think it went all that well.

        Joe

  • Space Gorilla

    “What sense would it make to use a tablet at a desk (at least not without a way to prop it up)?”

    I use my iPad at my desk most of the day, in a ZAGGFolio. It’s very comfortable to type on the hardware keyboard and touch the screen. Your elbow becomes a sort of swivel. I prefer this to the keyboard/mouse combination on my iMac. My arm and hand are both more relaxed.

    I have to think Apple is exploring hybrids, it’s just so darn comfortable and flexible to use the iPad with a keyboard case.

    • benbajarin

      I completely agree about Apple thinking about the hybrid. Part of me is just waiting for them to do their own keyboard integration with iPad, and even a larger iPad.

      James brings up what I think is a key point about pixel precise tasks. This has been something John Kirk has written about also referencing it as a flaw in Microsoft’s Windows 8 approach with touch. James also brings up the question of the size of this market. Since we provide analysis to most the major PC OEMs this is continually a question I do not have a comfortable answer for. I agree with James that there will always be jobs where pixel precision is needed, which is what a mouse is better for than a finger. I just have no idea how big. Still an open question but I agree with James the market segments and cars are a great example. Heavy lifting form factors will look different than light computing form factors.

      What would be sad, in my opinions, is if innovation stops in heavy lifting devices.

      • klahanas

        I would buy a MBA type product with a detachable screen and laptop level performance with 8+ hours battery life. And OSX! Perhaps a “skinned” OSX (a reskinned BSD? ;-)), but no “App Approval Process” BS.

      • Space Gorilla

        It is of course just one area, but pixel perfect precision has already been solved in apps like SketchBook Pro with the ability to zoom in and out quickly. This is what I need to do in Photoshop on my iMac anyway, but it is actually easier and quicker on the iPad.

        The keyboard isn’t an issue since you can add a hardware keyboard to an iPad. The issue comes down to the pointing device. I prefer touching the screen, but there is a point of ‘smallness’ where that just doesn’t work well enough. I’m not sure what the solution will be, but I don’t want it to be a mouse, that feels disconnected, clunky. Heh, maybe a magic trackpad thing for the iPad.

        I’m sure Apple’s figuring it out as they work on a 13 inch iPad/Mac Air hybrid device.

      • James King

        I agree with you both that an iPad w/ a keyboard makes a great deal of sense. It’s all about margins for Apple. If it can produce one that is comfortably profitable, it will probably happen.

        • Space Gorilla

          I’d buy a 17 inch iPad with detachable keyboard, but I realize that’s quite a ways off technology-wise and profit-wise. Doing work by touching the screen is so great, so immediate, so comfortable, and a big part of that is the elegance of iOS and the quality iOS apps.

          When I use my MacBook Pro with a trackpad it feels so old and clunky, I have to move my finger around down here on this pad, and that moves the mouse around up there, and then I click and move my finger more, blaaaaaaargh! why can’t I just touch the screen!!!!???!! That’s what it feels like. And before anyone comments, no I don’t want a Windows touchscreen laptop, I want an iPad Pro.

          • jfutral

            I don’t know. Ever since a keyboard has become my prevalent method for writing, my handwriting, which wasn’t all that great to begin with, has suffered. On top of that I’ve never been a touch typist and my typing is pretty miserable. I have no hope for a future if keyboard input is as good as it gets!

            Joe

          • Space Gorilla

            Well, dictation already works pretty well (I never type on an iPhone, I just dictate), but a hardware keyboard will be necessary for a long, long time. I type using three fingers on each hand (two fingers and both thumbs actually), it’s good enough.

    • doug

      I am not sure if that is the future. My 11 year old and his middle school classmates use iPads exclusively sans keyboard. His teacher is having a difficult time getting students to use the iMacs at the desk with keyboards. When my son does writing assignments, he still refuses the keyboard. His comments: “it gets in the way and its too slow” and at times, he reminds me that keyboards are for old people.

      Along with shunning keyboards, my son also refuses to use a mouse for film editing and digital works. He is quite deft with image editing tools. As both my wife and I are in the design/creative business. We have the full line of Adobe and AutoDesk software for movie, photo, etc… along with many expensive movie production, art production and photo production equipment. His exposure is unique, but his work process is not unusual for his age group.

      I believe, we are not adapting, and the future of technology is not about us and our past preferences, but about the next 30 years.

      • Space Gorilla

        My own kids (four of them) mirror your comments. They are like touchscreen wizards, and they illustrate, write, make movies, animations, etc with no problems. They have keyboard cases which they don’t use much. Hmm, maybe I’m just too old to accept that the next generation doesn’t actually need a hardware keyboard. Still, it makes sense to me that a hardware keyboard is incredibly useful for pro work.

  • jfutral

    Congrats on your article and good on Techpinions for giving you a platform other than in the comments section.

    Joe

    • James King

      Thanks Joe, I appreciate that.

      • jfutral

        I know you didn’t believe me when I said I think you are smart, but I do. Just because I disagree on some things doesn’t mean I don’t think you are smart. I wouldn’t have engaged with you otherwise.

        Joe

        • James King

          Thanks again. I know it’s a rare thing, but we’ve agreed on occassion 🙂 The feeling is mutual.

  • jfutral

    “For that matter, why watch video on a tablet, a device I have to support in one or both hands, rather than watch an HDTV I don’t have to hold at all? ”

    Why, indeed. Apparently one’s culture has an affect. As I mentioned to another article, TV on a smartphone is very popular in other countries. I’m not saying I get it or agree, just that it is happening. It may not make ergonomic sense, but it seems to make some sort of sense.

    Joe

    • James King

      I understand tablest are being used to consume TV content like crazy in the UK. The gun you have, right?

      • jfutral

        While I agree with you on the HDTV thing, my wife and daughter will sit in the room _with the TV that I have a MacMini attached to for internet viewing_ and STILL watch TV on their laptop, iPad or iPhone. I always just leave the room shaking my head. You and I are obviously missing something.

        Joe

        • James King

          Ha! Indeed.

  • Rene Stein

    I think that from a business standpoint, it is very important to compare items that take the same chunk of money from the consumer. That’s what the competition is for, that’s primarily why cars and trucks should be compared in the consumer market. A typical consumer has money in the budget for transportation/utility, most only have the money for one vehicle, so, what do they get? Car? Truck? SUV?

    For a lot of consumers, the same is true for computing devices. A PC and a tablet often compete for the same dollars that a consumer has. In wealthier countries this is not true, but in developing countries this is. A person saves for a year to get $400, they can buy a cheap laptop, tablet or smartphone, but only one. All three need to be compared because they are competing for the same piece of the budget. It is the smartphone that is winning that competition.

  • klahanas

    I want to commend you on an excellent post.
    Let’s look at this from an overall “computing” perspective. IMO computing utopia is achieved when:
    -Parity with state of the art CPU performance is achieved. Not “per class”, but overall.
    -Maximum mobility is achieved.
    -Minimum energy consumption is achieved.
    -OS and software environment run the gamut and are appropriate from the most simple applications, to you need three Ph.D.’s to use them.
    -The hardware environment is sufficiently flexible, and standards based for modification and expansion.
    -It should be easy to use out of the box, but the owner of the device can have maximum control “should they want it”.
    Everything else is a compromise. It will always be that way. There are technical hurdles, then there are business (competitive) hurdles. The technical hurdles are the most “forgivable”. As a consumer, I have no patience for the business hurdles. That’s their problem to solve if they want my money.
    The truck analogy is generally a poor one. In computing, the truck, from a performance perspective, can outrun AND outcorner a car. Where the truck falls short, is that it needs a road. We accept the requirement of a road as a compromise, due to the nature of the work. Mobile computing is more of an “off road” activity, and which is why we accept the compromises involved.
    I also heavily favor tactile attributes. Why would I want to give up one of my senses? Not everyone would feel that way. I might be willing to forgo that, in favor of a large screen. Again, it’s compromise.

    • James King

      Thanks, I appreciate the compliment. You made great points too, I agree.

  • stefnagel

    Dying it is, as in “The king is dead, long live the king.” The PC was king back when all you could buy were trucks, “any color of as long as it is beige.” Today’s “interpersonal computer” is mobile and includes connectivity and communication. Tomorrow it will add integral gesture, voice, movement, biometric, and location aware computing. And finally it will run the truck. a real truck.

    • klahanas

      I always find it cute when an Apple enthusiast remarks on product uniformity. Helloooo! 🙂
      I’ve been calling them iDenticals for years.

      • stefnagel

        I think you missed out on decades somehow. Back when Windows ran on almost every box out there. Beige on beige. Back when Macs were the only exceptions to Microsoft dominion, when the computing world was Bill’s way or the highway. See video below. )

        • klahanas

          Video is missing.
          Still… glass houses…stones?

          • stefnagel

            More like a kettle calling the monolith in 2001 black.

          • klahanas

            Yup!

          • klahanas

            Please see my edit above. Just for accuracy and completeness.

      • Corvus

        Well, I always find it cute when someone sees fit to be as condescending as you have chosen to be, at least you didn’t say “Apple Fanboi” Helloooo! 🙂

        • klahanas

          You may not have considered that stfnagel and I have had polite dialogue before, so I have no reason not to temper my verbiage.
          The point I was rebutting, was the double standard often employed by Apple enthusiasts, but much more frequently with “fanboi’s”.

        • klahanas

          Please see my edit above. Thanks for the call-out.

    • jfutral

      Pixel precision only refers to a system, a technique. It is not a goal in and of itself. There is no guarantee pixel precision, as a technique or method, will always be relevant. “Necessary”, in this case, is a relative term.

      Joe

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