The death and resurrection of the PC

Some people would say the PC is dead; others say it has always been doing fine or, at worst, is coming back to life. Which is it?

Recent announcements of new personal computing systems by Apple and Microsoft are leading to more discussions about the future (or lack thereof) of the “legacy” PC. To be fair, by PC we mean a desktop computer, or even more accurately, a small single-user computer generally not meant to be carried around. In other words, the classic PC does not fit into your pocket!

Today’s desktop doesn’t need to be a traditional office desk – it could be the kitchen in a home, a point-of-sale station, a hospital room, a refrigerator or anywhere that is stable.

Today’s PC is not even close to what was being sold in the early 1980s!

In 2016 the PC no longer needs to be:

  • physically wired to a network (most have both WiFi and Ethernet connections);
  • designed as an integrated unit – the keyboard and mouse can be wireless – although many now integrate the processor with the display;
  • equipped with a floppy disk (never anymore), a diskette (seldom) or even a CD/DVD player;
  • using a spinning disk drive for local storage (solid state disks and cloud storage are now available); or
  • based on a single processor (today’s PCs have up to four cores).

In fact, processing may even be off-loaded from the machine itself. A virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) can run a user desktop inside a virtual machine on a data centre server.

Why would the PC be dead or dying? 

In a word: mobility. For many “road warriors,” the desk is now anywhere that has a place to sit – at the customer’s office, in a car, in a coffee shop, at home or maybe even at the office. For some people, even a sidewalk is good enough! In these locations, the PC needs to be truly personal – associated with the person, not the place. And it must be able to access the Internet anywhere.

There are predictions that in two years the smartphone could be your only computer.

When I see restaurant point of sale systems still using Windows XP, I think these predictions might be a little ambitious. Apparently, however, corporate PCs are being kept longer than they used to be – up to five years instead of three or four.

There is less pressure to upgrade frequently than there was in the 1980s and 90s. This could be due to more reliable components (i.e. longer lasting hard drives), more efficient operating systems, sufficient power for typical applications, and slower innovation.

Re-imagining the PC

Various devices to meet the mobility requirements have been developed including laptops, notebooks, smartphones, tablets, and most recently wearables. Each is supposed to replace all or part of the PCs functionality, and yet none quite meet the goal fully.

I, for example, spend a good part of my day in my home office answering text messages and emails, and creating documents, presentations and reports. Most recently, I’ve been working on a large PowerPoint presentation. Ignoring the general debates about PowerPoint presentations, I simply cannot imagine doing this work on even the largest smartphone or tablet – it would be too tiring and result in a lot of eyestrain. Most likely producing music, videos or graphic art would be similarly straining.

On the other hand, personal systems now have all the computing power that is needed for most basic business apps.

It is not hard to imagine a “distributed PC” in which a combined large screen, keyboard and mouse communicates with a smartphone processor (and/or a cloud-based compute service) and with cloud-based storage to perform all the basic tasks.

Perhaps predicting the death of the PC is premature. What we need to do is re-imagine the PC for the next generation of cloud-based, highly-distributed, IoT-like systems.

This is what I sometimes dream about. How about you – do you dream about PCs, or is that a nightmare?

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Don Sheppard
Don Sheppard
I'm a IT management consultant. I began my career in railways and banks after which I took up the consulting challenge! I try to keep in touch with a lot of different I&IT topics but I'm usually working in areas that involve service management and procurement. I'm into developing ISO standards, current in the area of cloud computing (ISO JTC1/SC38). I'm also starting to get more interested in networking history, so I guess I'm starting to look backwards as well as forwards! My homepage is but I am found more here.

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