The PC is not dead

"The report of my death was an exaggeration"

This is a response to Johnathan Zittrain’s article entitled, surprisingly, The Personal Computer is Dead. I say surprisingly because the title is a bit deceiving, and the content has little to do with the death of the PC as such, 98% of the piece is spent talking about Apple’s closed development environment. In fact, I happen to agree with most of the content of the article, what I completely disagree with is the title and the first paragraph. Zittrain declares the death of the personal computer to illustrate the problem that he sees with Apple’s walled garden approach, as he envisions a future where we cannot have free access to software because most of us will be using Apple computers, and will be getting our computer programs from controlled environments like the App Store. He says in the opening paragraph:

“The PC is dead. Rising numbers of mobile, lightweight, cloud-centric devices don’t merely represent a change in form factor. Rather, we’re seeing an unprecedented shift of power from end users and software developers on the one hand, to operating system vendors on the other—and even those who keep their PCs are being swept along. This is a little for the better, and much for the worse.”

Just like a coroner at a busy mortuary, he simply signs the death certificate with the merest glance at the body in front of him. No figures, no statistics, we’re simply told that the PC market is dying, and I must assume that the replacement will be a world where everyone will be using iPads, smartphones and netbooks. This is the premise that I want to argue against.

In a very controversial article published last year, Wired declared the death of the Web for similar reasons to those presented by Zittrain, namely, the rise of mobile computing. According to that piece, everyone in the future will access the Internet through apps, and the humble website would simply disappear. There were several replies to this, but my favourites were this article in Scientific American, and this deconstruction of their now infamous chart at Boing Boing. A common criticism of the article is that it was too parochial, that it noticed some trends amongst the technocratic elites of Silicon Valley, and assumed that we would all be doing the same thing. I believe that the same may have happened to Zittrain, perhaps he surveys the contents of his classroom, and sees only tablets and smartphones. Where did all the laptops go? This seems a very American-centric view of the world, and a college-age view at that. In the rest of the world not everyone can afford an iPad.

There is no doubt that we are seeing an unprecedented diversification in the computer hardware market, but this does not spell the end of the PC. In fact, PC sales have continued to grow year on year for the past two decades, and while Gartner recently slashed its growth forecast, the PC market grew by more than 3% in 2011.

PC annual sales growth actual (1998-2010) from The Guardian.

The fact is that the PC is still doing fine for a very simple reason: people need to work. Have you tried getting any actual work done on your iPad? Even with a keyboard it is not the friendliest of working environments. Apps are good for specific tasks, such as playing games, reading news, checking social networks, chatting, listening to music, watching videos, and all sort of things that apps are good for. But if I need to write a document, design a website, or go through some spreadsheets, I do it at my Windows PC. The workstation is still a considerable marketplace, and I reckon that it will be with us for at least another decade.

What I envision will happen is that the growth of the PC market will stop, and we will experience a gradual decrease, probably with movement towards cloud-based devices and sturdier work-friendly tablets, but the PC will still live strongly until a workstation replacement really comes of age. If I think of my technology usage, I now own a Kindle, an iPad, an iPod, an Android smartphone, a PS3, a laptop and a PC. They all have overlapping capabilities, for example, I can listen to music and read ebooks in all of them. But I use them for different purposes, most of my work is done on a Windows PC (and some online gaming). I also use this as a media server to send video files to several devices, like the games console and the iPad. The laptop is for travel and work at the office, while the iPad is mostly for gaming and watching videos. I cannot envisage getting rid of either the laptop or the PC, and I suspect I’m not alone in this.

As mentioned already, I completely agree with Zittrain’s main argument. Apple’s closed development policies are bad for innovation. This is why I’m placing a lot of hope in Android.

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