The Decentralization of the PC

Ben Bajarin / December 30th, 2013

I’ve been trying to figure out a better way to articulate what is happening in the multi-screen era we have shifted to. I say shifting because there are many markets where one screen still dominates most consumers connected experiences. What is fascinating about those markets is that it is a mobile device which is the primary computing device not a PC with a mouse and keyboard designed to be used in a fixed or stationary setting. But in many western markets growing numbers of consumers are using multiple screens in collaboration with each other.

I’ve never liked the term “post-PC.” Primarily because in many western markets the mouse and keyboard PC is still being used in conduction with other connected devices. The term post-PC gets has carried with it a tone which de-emphasizes the role of the PC more than it should. The other term we have used, which I no longer like, is the PC plus era. This term emphasized that the mouse and keyboard PC was still relevant but also puts too much emphasis back on the mouse and keyboard PC for my liking.

The best way to understand what the computing shift which is happening is that the PC has been decentralized. Prior to our smartphones and tablets, the PC was the center of our computing universe. I vividly remember Macworld in 2001 where Steve Jobs eloquently positioned the Mac as the center of consumers digital lives. For nearly a decade this was true for many computer users. Everything revolved around the PC and was an accessory to the PC.

This is no longer the case. Think about the last time you physically–with a wire–connected your smartphone or tablet to your PC? I honestly think its been at least a year since I plugged in my iPhone, iPad, or even my DSLR with physical wire to my PC.

The decentralization of the PC has become even more evident to me in the past few years. Being that I’m the most technical person in my immediate and extended family I’m generally the person who fixes PCs for family members. For the better part of the past decade I can’t remember a family gathering around the holidays at someone else’s house where I wasn’t asked to take a look at what was wrong with someones Windows PC. Yet over the past few years, I’ve noticed those requests have shifted from fixing Windows notebooks or desktops to showing tips or tricks of things to do with their iOS or Android devices.

What is key to internalize about this shift and the decentralizing of the PC is that it is being led by mobility. We have noticed this shift with every advance in computing. Notebooks overtook desktops as the dominant computing form factor and now smartphones and tablets are overtaking Notebooks as primary compute devices as a percentage of computing time for many (especially if we take a worldwide view of the market).1

The center is now mobile. The mobile market is bigger than the PC market. The mobile Internet is bigger than the desktop Internet. The mobile Internet is the first class citizen and the desktop Internet is secondary to it. 2 The world is already mobile. The PC will still live on and sell hundreds of millions of units annually while mobile devices will grow and sell billions of devices annually. Each plays a role as a part of a computing solution. The cloud will keep all our devices in sync, allowing us to choose any number of screen size and form factor combinations as a part of any individual computing solution.

Mobile computing devices will become more powerful and more capable. This reality will continually challenge legacy devices that require a consumer be stationary to get the full value of the product. The share of compute time is already shifting from fixed to mobile devices and this reality is upon us. The PC has been decentralized and mobile is the new center.

What is interesting to ponder is if there is still a shift to happen that can decentralize the smartphone.

  1. In fact, more people are actively online with mobile devices that PCs on a worldwide level. []
  2. Yes I include tablets in the mobile Internet discussion. []

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
  • Glaurung-Quena

    More and more, I use my desktop as a repository of large files, for media transcoding, and for typing. Day to day web surfing, email checking, etc, as well as all gaming, has moved to my tablet. Partly because slouching on the couch is so much more comfy, partly because of my RSI, partly because it’s just more fun to use the ipad.

    The problem, however, is this:

    “The center is now mobile. The mobile market is bigger than the PC market. The mobile Internet is bigger than the desktop Internet. The mobile Internet is the first class citizen and the desktop Internet is secondary to it.”

    Sorry Ben, but this is flat out not true. Not yet. Several times a week I follow a link only to discover that the major media site I’ve gone to has dumped me onto a piece of crap “mobile optimized” site that is optimized little other than denying me the ability to see the article as it was intended to be seen, denying me the ability to scroll quickly through the article (because some idiot somewhere decided that “mobile optimized” meant serving articles up as if they were book pages that you have to swipe sideways to get through) denying me the ability to pinch-zoom if I find their choice of font size too small, and denying me the ability to explore related articles that on the real website are featured in the sidebar.

    And just as frequently I find the information I’m looking for on a website or forum where tapping on the correct link is nearly impossible because the link targets are so teeny and crammed so close together.

    Oh, and I reserve a special place in hell for those sites where they’ve found a way to disable pinch-to-zoom, *and* have teeny ant-sized text. Yes, safari has its “reader” link for that, but I don’t use safari for web surfing because my eyes are getting old and I require bigger fonts everywhere, and mobile safari doesn’t let me set a text zoom level like Perfect Web Browser does.

    Not to mention the still staggering number of sites (many small local news sites, but also quite a few bigger sites that should freaking know better, ie, cable channels like hgtv.ca) that continue to embed video or slide shows using flash and which flat out don’t work on mobile safari.

    And then there’s my spouse’s favourite web-based MMO strategy game, Travian, which still doesn’t have a mobile version, and which has certain functions that don’t work on a touch screen.

    In short, on a daily basis, I find myself going to my desktop to read or view something because the web site is set up to make me feel like a second-class citizen for daring to visit them on my ipad.

    • benbajarin

      That statement sums up the point that there are more people on the planet using mobile devices as their primary and in many cases their only way to access the Internet and computing.

      The desktop web, while still important, is vastly dwarfed by the scale and impact of mobility. That was my point with that statement. It reflects a WW view of the mobile scale not a western one.

      • Glaurung-Quena

        “That was my point with that statement. It reflects a WW view of the mobile scale not a western one.”

        And my point is that the (primarily Western) companies whose web sites make up the bulk of the internet have (still!) not yet gotten the memo that mobile is the new default — the web is still full of sites that treat mobile users as second-class citizens, sites that are unreadable on small screens, and sites that become quite difficult to use on a touch screen.

        • benbajarin

          Where do you stand on the apps as a interface to the web vs. sites just mobile optimizing them?

          • Glaurung-Quena

            I am speaking here of websites that are means of delivering text/image/video information (forums, news sites, youtube, most of the traditional web), and not websites that are really programs that happen to run in your browser (gmail, google docs, etc)

            To date, my experience with apps has been uniformly negative. XKCD summed it up for me pretty well: http://xkcd.com/1174/ and http://xkcd.com/869/. And don’t forget http://tinyurl.com/ccz9aoa (“I don’t want your f*ing app” tumbler)

            The TL,DR version: my personal experience with apps is that either I’m an occasional visitor to the site or a frequent user. Say I’m looking for information. I google and the result takes me to a site that has an app. Screw the app, all I want is to see the page that my google search found so I can learn what I need to know. In which case, the web page had better damn work properly on my device. If the site works well and has the info I need, I’ll remember it positively and will be more likely to visit again. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll become a frequent user. If the site is user-hostile (which includes pushing its app in my face/being unreadable, etc), then I’m likely to remember it negatively.

            On the other hand, if I am a frequent user of a site, then an app just might, possibly perhaps, let me do what I want to do there faster and better than visiting it with the browser. But it has to deliver the functionality that I use on the website, or it’s useless to me. For instance, I checked out the Ebay app once, then deleted it in disgust because it did not provide some of the sellers tools I am accustomed to using, and because I could not easily figure out how to narrow and sort search results in the way I am accustomed to doing on the web site.

            Given that the site owners NEED to make their site work properly in a mobile browser (for new and occasional users), then if they’re going to also spend the money to make a mobile app, they’ve got to have a pretty solid reason for spending the extra money and time. For a lot of web sites, I very much doubt there’s sufficient justification. If they cannot replicate the full functionality of their site, then they have to have a clear use case that they’re catering to… and they need to explain that use case to their users so that people don’t download the app with unrealistic expectations, get disappointed, and form a negative impression.

            One last bit: I don’t have a smartphone, so my experience is based on tablet
            usage. I gather from what I’ve read that apps are much more popular on
            phones, and given the tiny screen size, an app for a web site might make
            more sense on a phone — for one thing, it won’t have precious UI
            pixels devoted to the web browser. But again, the first time someone’s going to come across your company’s site, it’s going to be on a browser, and that has to work properly and well, or you will lose the chance to make a good first impression.

          • Glaurung-Quena

            Forgot to mention a second example: I tried getting the facebook app recently (I don’t use facebook but my spouse does occasionally to keep in touch with relatives and friends who live far away), and discovered that it was essentially the same as the facebook web site, almost completely replicating the experience and functionality of the site in the browser. As a tablet user, I saw no benefit from the app over visiting the website (and my spouse prefers the site because she’s running the web browser already, why add the extra complication of quitting and launching another app), but if I was using a phone I imagine I’d prefer the app since it would have better use of screen real estate.

            Facebook, of course, has money to spend on making a decent web site and a decent app. For all those companies that don’t have the money, I really think they’re better off making their web site not suck.

        • jfutral

          As much criticism as Jobs got for being a control freak, it really is a Western corporate pandemic. The reason most of those sites insist on doing things so poorly is they are wrestling with the notion that they are losing the power of control, or at least control as they have known it. The companies that get on board addressing your concerns (which I also share, BTW, and for likely the same reasons) and figure things out for the new normal are the ones with a more vibrant future.

          Joe

    • N

      If every web browser had Safari’s Reader function and everyone learned how to use it, there would no longer be a need for a mobile version of publications.

      But since Reader strips away all advertisements we’ll of course never see it in another browser. Even Apple has sadly de-emphasized it in iOS 7 by using an incomprehensible icon instead of its name. I use to read every virtually every article.

      On a related note, if a publisher’s mobile version uses a different URL and/or doesn’t provide the identical functionality of the desktop site it has failed. Though expensive, custom responsive design is the way to go.

      It’s interesting that Apple’s website doesn’t have a mobile version. Instead, the company is slowly but surely creating apps for various parts of its site such as its store. I hope the support portion gets an app someday.

  • Shameer Mulji

    “The center is now mobile.”

    Don’t entirely agree. In 2011, when Steve Jobs introduced iCloud, he said that iCloud is now the hub of your digital life and the Mac is being “demoted” to being just a device. Apply that concept to the rest of the industry, the cloud is now (or will soon be) the center of your digital life. It’s the cloud (or cloud-based services) that enables mobility so we can have our data / content anywhere, anytime and on any device.

  • DarwinPhish

    “The mobile Internet is bigger than the desktop Internet. The mobile
    Internet is the first class citizen and the desktop Internet is
    secondary to it.”

    What is your basis for this? I understand there are more mobile devices capable of accessing the internet, but that alone is not conclusive. Are there any usage/engagement stats that suggest the mobile internet is bigger or more relevant? Also when you say internet, are you including applications (mobile and desktop) that rely on the internet or are you just looking at web browsing?

    • benbajarin

      No, it is number of total WW population who uses a smartphone. So we have to correctly lump apps which are gateways to the internet for more people than are PCs into this conversation.

      PC penetration is 20% of the WW population and smartphones with an active data plan is 28%. There is spill over even in the % of those with a PC who have shifted primarily to mobile. So while i’ll be generous to the PC in this discussion, by bare install base smartphone are bigger are the gap is quickly expanding. In 2013 the install base of smartphones passed that of PCs. Most of those are in regions where PC penetration is very low. But, we are seeing even in saturated PC markets that the smartphone and to a degree tablet is becoming the primary compute device not the PC. Especially around online activity, mostly through apps. Which is a key point all by itself but the internet via Mobile devices is the crux of my point. It is bigger and getting much bigger.

  • klahanas

    What a refreshing and honest position. Fantastic! Kudos! Post-PC, PC-Plus, yada, yada, is just marketing mumbo jumbo intended to seed a trend.

    The PC is the PC, Mobile is Mobile. One invariably will be used more that the other. Like “What’s the best camera?” it’s the one you have with you. It does not mean the most used is the most complete, or the fastest, or the least expensive, or the most versatile. The desktop web will always have the most latitude due to technical and vendor policy reasons. So what? Use what you have closest to you. That’s not to say that Mobile shouldn’t strive to reach those same levels of rigor.

    Thanks again.

  • jfutral

    I think mobile is the new center of usage by being the primary device, but not necessarily of the digital hub. As Shameer Mulji mentions, the hub _should_ be the cloud since it is the only point of device agnosticism possible. But no one has quite figured that Cloud Hub out completely as yet. Google and Amazon do a better job than Apple, I think. But what Apple does with iCloud, it does very well. It just doesn’t do enough. Drop Box does an admirable job, but they keep confusing things with complexity. I’m still never sure if I delete or move a file in a Drop Box if I am affecting everyone else it is shared with and I am scared to do anything but double click the thing. MS is too caught up with the Windows of things to be of any use but to the most entrenched corporate uses (uses, not necessarily users who most likely want something else, too).

    There just may not be a center to the hub any more. It seems to be more of a digital web than a hub.

    “What is interesting to ponder is if there is still a shift to happen that can decentralize the smartphone.

    Right?

    Joe

  • N

    Good article except I’m not a fan of anecdotes.

    For example, I still regularly physically connect my iOS devices to my Mac.

    First, it’s the fastest way to transfer music (Beyoncé recently proved that even Millennials sometimes want to buy music).

    Second, I view iCloud backups the same way I view services like Carbonite — a last resort. So I periodically backup my iOS devices locally, especially after rearranging and removing apps thanks to new favorites and workflows. When I recently got my lemon iPhone 5s replaced at an Apple store, I restored the new iPhone in just a few minutes thanks to my local iTunes backup. Restoring from iCloud would have taken much longer.

    I’m not arguing that I’m typical. No one is typical. You can only make predictions based on statistically reliable data.

  • Arrdee

    PC Plus will be a big theme in 2014, and the “plus” is Android! CES 2014 is expected to show off quite a few vendors’ efforts in that direction.

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