PC Stands for Personal Choice

on May 8, 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.