The Indefatigable PC

By all rights, it should be dead by now. I mean, really. A market based on a tech product that first came to market over 35 years go?

And yet, here we stand in the waning days of October 2016 and the biggest news expected to come out of the tech industry this week are PC announcements from two of the largest companies in the world: Apple and Microsoft. It’s like we’re in some kind of a weird time warp. (Of course, the Cubs are poised to win their first World Series in over 100 years, so who knows?)

The development must be particularly surprising to those who bought into the whole “PC is dead” school of thought. According to the proselytizers of this movement, tablets should have clearly taken over the world by now. But that sure didn’t happen. While PC shipments have certainly taken their lumps, tablets never reached anything close to PCs from a shipments perspective. In fact, tablet shipments have now been declining for over 3 years.

After tablets, smartwatches were supposed to be the next generation personal computing device. Recent shipment data from IDC, however, suggests that smartwatches are in for an even worse fate than tablets. A little more than a year-and-a-half after being widely introduced to the market, smartwatch shipments are tanking. Not exactly a good sign for what was supposed to be the “next big thing.”

Of course, PCs continue to face their challenges as well, particularly consumer PCs. After peaking in Q4 of 2011, worldwide PC shipments have been on a slow steady decline ever since. Interestingly, however, US PC shipments have actually turned around recently and are now on a modestly increasing growth curve.

The reason for this is that PCs have continued to prove their usefulness and value to a wide range of people, especially in business environments. PCs are certainly not the only computing device that people are using anymore, but for many, PCs remain the go-to productivity device and for others, they still play an important role.

To put it simply, there’s just something to be said for the large-screen computing experience that only PCs can truly provide. More importantly, it’s not clear to me that there’s anything poised to truly replace that experience in the near term.

Another big reason for the PC’s longevity is that it has been on a path of constant and relatively consistent evolution since its earliest days. Driven in part by the semiconductor manufacturing advances enabled by Moore’s Law, a great deal of credit also needs to be given to chip designers at Intel, AMD and nVidia, among others, who have created incredibly powerful devices. Similarly, OS and application software advances by Apple, Microsoft and many others have created environments that over a billion people are able to use to work, play and communicate with on a daily basis.[pullquote]PCs have actually never been stronger or more attractive tech devices—it’s more like a personal computer renaissance than a personal computer extinction. “[/pullquote]

There have also been impressive improvements in the physical designs of PCs. After a few false starts at delivering thin-and-light notebooks, for example, the super-slim ultrabook offerings from the likes of Dell (XPS13), HP (Spectre X360) and Lenovo (ThinkPad X1) have caught up to and arguably even surpassed Apple’s still-impressive MacBook Air. At the same time, to the surprise of many, Microsoft’s Surface has successfully spawned a whole new array of 2-in-1 and convertible PC designs that has brought new life to the PC market as well. It’s easy to take for granted now, but you can finally get the combination of performance, weight, size and battery life that many have always wanted in a PC.

Frankly, PCs have actually never been stronger or more attractive tech devices—it’s more like a personal computer renaissance than a personal computer extinction. The fact that we’ll likely be talking about the latest additions to this market later this week says a great deal about the role that PCs still have to play.

Published by

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

21 thoughts on “The Indefatigable PC”

  1. So… according to your third paragraph, you didn’t buy into the whole “Post PC” war cry either?
    Infidel! 🙂

    To be fair, the bulk of the netbook market, which went to the tablet, was not in the PC market by choice, rather by necessity. Still, the BS-ers needed a term and so it went.

    1. To be fair, the “post-PC” and “PC is dead” are actually two different views. Jobs (the guy who at least made the term “post-PC” popular if not the one who coined it) didn’t even think the PC was dead.


        1. The analogy is not the point. The analogy is an attempt to illustrate the point that one does not fully replace the other (which is not the “PC is dead” mantra others may espouse), that’s all. Criticizing the analogy is vacuous.


          1. I objected to even the lesser “Post PC” drivel. “Post” has a terminal air to it, he didn’t say “instead of” which is a far more honest descriptor.

            Never mind that I’m not too much a fan of slogans and bumper stickers. 🙂

  2. I think Mobile has been shy about invading Desktop’s turf, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

    It’s not a priority right now because there’s more money in phones and the distractions of wearables, smart homes, smart cars, i-health, VR… and a lot of Mobile OEMs are PC OEMs too anyway. But non-PC OEMs & Google might realize at some point that there’s a lot of money being made in PCs, and that the tweaks required to turn a Mobile platform into a good Desktop platform are minimal and have no impact at all on “classic Mobile” use cases. Apart from the fringiest fringe, PCs are mostly about a couple of screens, keyboard and mouse, and moar power/storage/IO.

    I do think at some point, the rot of the PC market – Apple updating models every 2+ years is a clear sign of it – will make it a shoo-in for a move up by Mobile. Once apps and habits are overwhelmingly on the Mobile side, which has started: some non-mobile-specific apps are already better on my Android than on my Wintel PC: Mail, Clock, Calendar… plus most Web apps on the PC are worse than native Android apps: Feedly, Maps, Hangouts…

    1. “I do think at some point, the rot of the PC market – Apple updating models every 2+ years is a clear sign of it – will make it a shoo-in for a move up by Mobile.”

      So I understand you correctly, you’re essentially talking about Apple making a version of iOS designed for laptops / desktops?

      1. That’s the point: it wouldn’t be very different.

        Win10 does Mobile and Desktop already.
        Android could with vanishingly little work,actually it already does but via OEM customizations, not by itself.
        Apple could either expand iOS+hardware to handle a desktop use case, or port the full MacOS and execute a PowerPC-like transition. They’re already converging iOS and MacOS.

        I think the main barrier is “why bother”, Macs (and PCs) are not a huge market, and switching architectures won’t produce many extra sales. Since MS failed to push its Mobile+Desktop vision, and Google is dithering, there’s no pressure yet. I think it’s build though, from non-advanced users tired of struggling on the PC with tasks they can easily do on their tablets and phones.

        1. tasks they can easily do on their tablets and phones

          I think this is a very important point in that if it is easier to do on your phone, then by all means, you should do it on your phone.

          When you are at your PC doing work, chances are that you phone is also nearby, charging via your PC’s USB port. If a task is easier to do on your phone, then you can just pick it up. If it is easier to do on your PC, then just do it on your PC. As long as the two are synchronised quickly, there isn’t much of an issue.

          Hence the rush does not need to be to make the PC and smartphone run the same OS, but to enable effortless synchronisation. As you say, combining the OSes is secondary and hence no rush.

          The other important thing that often gets overlooked is that even if Google and Apple created a single OS for PC and mobile, we would still be overwhelmingly multiOS. Most companies are standardised on Windows PCs and this won’t change any time soon. Therefore the benefits of a single OS are actually extremely small in the near to mid term. So again, no pressure.

  3. The keyboard. Despite all the hoopla about other methods of data input, the keyboard is still the fastest, least taxing, and most unobtrusive way to input large volumes of words and numbers into the computer. The keyboard is actually more critical than a large screen. For the computing tasks I mentioned, a larger screen is a mere convenience, but the keyboard is a necessity.

  4. There seems to a missing element here, and I think,it has to do with the very limited scope of what one is looking at as computers. Maybe the PC isn’t dead, but if you look at “networked computing devices” you’ve left off the smart phone from this equation. With a limited view of traditional computers (desktop or clamshell) vs tablets, you miss the fact that computing devices are in the hands and pockets of more people than ever. Compute abilities (even if it’s just auto adjusting your instagram photos) and email and messaging capabilities are available to people that the PC paradigm just never made sense to. So in terms of people who never had a PC the smart phone has eaten its lunch.

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