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Is the PC Dying?

I just read an interesting article about the dispute between Microsoft and Apple about types of PC [1]. Steve Jobs predicted a switch from desktop PCs to portable devices, while Steve Ballmer of Microsoft claimed that the iPad is just a new PC.

Defining a PC

I think that the defining characteristic of the IBM Compatible PC was it’s open architecture. Right from the start the PC could have it’s hardware expanded by adding new circuit boards into slots on the motherboard (similar to other PC systems of that era such as the Apple 2 and the S-100 bus). The deal with IBM included Intel sharing all it’s CPU designs with other manufacturers such as NEC and AMD from the 8086 until the mid-90’s. AMD specialised in chips that were close copies of Intel chips at low prices and higher clock rates while NEC added new instructions. Compaq started the PC clone market as well as the laptop market, and system software for the IBM compatible PCs was primarily available from IBM and Microsoft in the early days, along with less popular variants such as CP/M86, Novell Netware and others. In the late 80’s there was OS/2 as an alternate OS and Windows as one of several optional GUI environments to run on top of MS-DOS or PC-DOS. In the mid 90’s PCs were used for running protected mode OSs such as Linux and Windows/NT.

Now if we look at a system such as a Netbook then it clearly misses some of the defining characteristics of the desktop PC. I can’t upgrade a Netbook in any meaningful way – changing a storage device or adding more RAM does not compare to adding an ISA/MCA/EISA/VL-Bus/PCI/PCIe expansion card. With my EeePC 701 I don’t even have an option of replacing the storage as it is soldered to the motherboard! A laptop allows me to add a PCMCIA or PC-Card device to expand it, but with a maximum of two cards and a high price this isn’t a great option.

What is Best for Home Users?

For a while now my parents have been using 3G net access for their home Internet use [2]. So it seems that a laptop provides greater benefits for their use now than it previously did when they used Cable and ADSL net access. My parents have been considering getting a new monitor (1920*1080 resolution monitors are getting insanely cheap nowadays) and driving such a monitor effectively might require a more capable PC. I recently bought myself a nice refurbished Thinkpad for $796 [3], it seems likely that I could find a refurbished Thinkpad at auction which is a little older and slower for a lower price, even buying an old T41p would be a reasonable option. This would give my parents not only the option of using the Internet when on holidays, but also in a different part of their house when they are at home.

The Apple iPad would probably be quite a reasonable Internet platform for my parents if it wasn’t for the fact that it uses DRM. While it’s not a great platform for writing, my parents probably don’t do enough that it would be a huge problem for them. So I might look for a less restrictive tablet platform for my parents. At the moment the best resolution for a tablet seems to be 1024*768, but I expect that some tablets (maybe with a hybrid tablet/laptop design like the Always Innovating Smartbook [4]) with a higher resolution will be released soon. I hope that the iPad and other closed devices don’t get any serious market share, but it seems likely that OSs such as Android which are only slightly more open will have a significant market share.

Ultra-Mobile Design vs PCs Design

One significant problem with ultra-mobile devices is that they make significant engineering trade-offs to get the small size. For a desktop system there are lots of ways of doing things inefficiently, running the AMD64 or i386 architecture which is wasteful of energy and having lots of unused space inside the box in case you decide to upgrade it. But for a laptop there are few opportunities for being inefficient, and for a tablet or smart phone everything has to be optimised. When the optimisation of a device starts by choosing a CPU that’s unlike most other systems (note that there is a significant range of ARM CPUs that are not fully compatible with each other) it makes it very difficult to produce free software to run it. I can salvage a desktop PC from a rubbish bin and run Linux on it (and I’ve done that many times), but I wouldn’t even bother trying to run Linux on an old mobile phone.

It seems that in the near future my parents (and many other people with similar needs) will be best suited by having a limited device such as a tablet that stores all data on the Internet and not having anything that greatly resembles a PC. In many ways it would be easier for me to support my parents by storing their data in the cloud and then automatically backing it up to removable SATA disks than with my current situation of supporting a fully capable PC and backing it up to a USB device whenever I visit them.

I’m also considering what to do for some relatives who are about to go on a holiday in Europe, they want to be able to send email etc. It might not be possible just yet, but it seems like an ideal way of doing this would be to provide them with something like an iPad that they can use with a local 3G SIM for the country that they stay in and they could then upload all their best photos to some server that I can backup and send email to everyone they know. An iPad isn’t good for this now as you don’t want to go on holidays in another country while carrying something that is really desirable to thieves.

Ultra Mobile Devices are Killing PCs

It seems to me that Google Android and the Apple iPad/iPhone OS are taking over significant parts of the PC market. The people who are doing traditional PC things are increasingly using Laptops and Netbooks, and the number of people who get the freedom that a PC user did in the 80’s and 90’s is decreasing rapidly.

I predict that by 2012 the majority of Linux systems will be running Google Android on hardware that doesn’t easily allow upgrading to more open software. At the moment probably the majority of Linux systems are wireless routers and other embedded devices that people don’t generally think about. But when iPad type devices running a locked-down Linux installation start replacing Ubuntu and Fedora desktop systems people will take notice.

I don’t think that the death of the PC platform as we know it will kill Linux, but it certainly won’t do us any good. If there were smarter people at Microsoft then they would be trying to work with the Linux community on developing innovative new ways of using desktop PCs. Of all the attempts that Microsoft has made to leave the PC platform the only success has been the X-Box which is apparently doing well.

Tablet devices such as the iPad could work really well in a corporate environment (where MS makes most of it’s money). On many occasions I’ve been in a meeting and we had to adjourn due to someone needing to go to their desk to look something up. If everyone had an iPad type device at their desk that used a wired network when it was available and encrypted wireless otherwise then for a meeting everyone could take their tablet without it’s keyboard and be able to consult all the usual sources of data without any interruption.

Could a high-resolution version of the iPad kill MS-Windows in the corporate environment?

11 comments to Is the PC Dying?

  • Roland

    Reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated. Computing seems to cycle between client/server and peer/peer every few years. Thin clients/cloud computing are not gonna cut it for most people and businesses. Biz data is too precious to entrust to “the cloud” and PCs are too cheap to disappear. Not everyone needs the mobility of a laptop/netbook. And as you say, big screens are addictive. Don’t be fooled by fads or by propaganda from those with an agenda to sell. Wireless spectrum will always be shared, therefore prone to overloading. Touch interfaces are fine for consuming media, but no good for actual work. Two thumbs will never compete with touch-typing.

  • etbe

    Roland: In the 90’s peer-peer was everywhere. Small companies used peer-peer networking. Now there are even companies with a couple of dozen employees are moving to thin clients and running all the software on the server. There seems to be a continual trend away from peer-peer, it’s often a case of using a server on the other side of the world to transfer files to someone in the same office!

    They used to say that not everyone needed the flexibility of a PC. It seems to me that now people want the flexibility of location and are willing to trade-off the flexibility of operation.

    There’s also the issue of which things you really NEED. My first laptop cost me $3,800, at that time not many people owned a laptop. Now you can get quite decent systems new for about $600 and my current laptop cost me $800 refurbished and it’s a fairly high-end system. So all the people who’s need for mobility didn’t stretch to $3,800 now have the option of buying something for well under $800.

    Big screens are nice, but there are some limits as to what can be done. Also it’s quite possible to design a mobile device which has a connector for an external screen with higher resolution. Laptops have been designed that way for a long time and tablets could easily be designed in that way too.

    Wireless bandwidth is adequate to solve the basic Internet access speeds of the population – not youtube etc, but email, instant-messaging, and web browsing of sites that are mostly text based.

    I agree that touch-screens are no good for serious typing, but you can already use a Bluetooth keyboard with an iPad. The option of using a keyboard where possible and using the computer in places where a keyboard isn’t possible is better than the situation of desktop systems which can’t be moved and laptops which are often inconvenient to move.

  • Oz

    I get a bit annoyed of all these “X is dead/dying” posts. Nowadays it seems that everything is dead if it’s not hyped. When hype switches its focus the old thing is immediately “dead”. When some new economic concepts are introduced the old ones “die” instantly, or so it seems according to blogs.

    So, I don’t think PC is dying. The platform may become less popular than it is now because there will be more alternatives especially for communication.

  • etbe

    Oz: Well “Is the PC going to continue losing market share” isn’t such a great headline. ;)

    But seriously a certain amount of investment is needed to maintain a platform. If all the interesting things get done on servers, tablets, and phones then those of us who do things that really need desktop PCs will find that we often can’t get what we want for a reasonable price.

    Remember the “luggable” computers that had all the features of desktops but were portable (if you were strong enough)? They offered some significant benefits to people who needed such things, now they are gone.

  • It’s “its”, not “it’s”.

  • Give me an ipad with a decent keyboard, maybe 2x the screen size, and which can stand on its own comfortably on the table (holding it on my hands is stupid for working). Of course, a pointer device, as lifting my finger all the time to point at places in the screen is not at all ergonomic. Allow me to attach removable media. And voila, you have something very similar to my desktop, although using less desktop real estate.

  • etbe

    Gunnar: Exactly! Now the ability to stand it on a table is a well known issue that will probably be addressed soon. The screen size is also an issue (I’m not sure whether you are thinking about resolution, physical size, or both – but in any case it’s deficiency is obvious), but there’s no technical difficulty in fixing that – it’s just a matter of marketing the resulting product to people who can use such things. I expect that you could have a bluetooth dock to attack removable media.

    I personally could use an iPad device in my home right now, and the only reason I haven’t got one is because it’s locked in to Apple stuff at every level. This is what makes me concerned about the future for generic PCs.

  • Jason

    I hope there will always be workstations or affordable server machines for
    those of us who need or want to run our own infrastructure; otherwise,
    effective control shifts to server operators.

    I could almost replace my laptop with a netbook-type device, since I find it
    easier, given network connectivity, to log into my workstation at home over
    ssh to read mail, edit files etc., than to perform these operations locally on
    the laptop. However, the laptop also has to be able to serve as a substitute
    for the workstation in the event that the latter fails, or network
    connectivity isn’t available.

    I could envisage switching to an environment comprising a home server and one
    or more thin client devices, if I had a quick and effective means of dealing
    with hardware problems on the server machines.

    I couldn’t shift the server functions to some company’s data centre for
    several reasons, including:

    1. I have substantial collections of files which I need to keep firmly under
    my control and in local storage for legal and practical reasons.

    2. I want access to the above, and to my software when the network is down.

    3. I want control over my own files and software.

    For non-technical end-users, however, I think thin clients are attractive in
    that they shift all of the responsibilities of system administration to the
    server operator, and applications are available (with persistent state) from
    anywhere on the network at any time.

  • etbe

    Jason: Firstly I agree with you in almost everything.

    I hope that workstations remain affordable and continue to have good options for configuration, but I don’t expect that to be the case. A declining market share will mean less engineering resources devoted to them and therefore technical stagnation.

    I also could make good use of a thin-client device. Not that an iPad is really that much of a thin-client. An iPad at least as much RAM as every desktop/laptop I owned until about 2001, probably at least as much CPU power as every laptop until about 2003, and a screen that has the same resolution as laptops 2 and 3 (which is better than laptop 1) and only one level below the desktop systems I was using until ~2003. One of my clients does a lot of thing-client work, some of the thin clients they were selling in 2005 had less power than the iPad does now.

    Now I think that the use of cloud storage and thin clients can provide real and significant benefits to typical users. But they need to make sure that they have their own private backups which they totally control, local storage for big files, etc.

  • Jason

    I agree that workstations may well stagnate. However, servers won’t, andy
    there’s very little difference between my current workstation and server
    hardware. The ECC RaM, SCSI drives and CPU are all server components; the chip
    set is Intel 5000X, intended for workstations but presumably very similar to a
    server’s, as I assume is the board itself. The fans and case provide a tower
    configuration and quiet operation, and of course there is support for video
    and audio which a server wouldn’t need.

    So, if workstations can be built largely from server components, and servers
    remain affordable then we might have good options in the anticipated age of
    the thin client.

  • ctl

    Desktop PC’s sales are in rapid decline. Smart Phones, PADS and notebooks, are all dockable, making them the best of all worlds. Storage of files can be local or “cloud based” so thats not even an issue — its your choice. Locally installed software is also rapidly being replaced by online application service providers such as Google and “Mobile APPS”. Business are slowly moving toward web based applicatoins and thin clients. The backend Server market will continue to grow but linux will probably soon overtake microsoft in this arena. Don’t forget about Google Chrome OS either, it could kill Microsoft as a desktop OS if it takes off. The price for Windows 7 OS is outrageous.

    High end users or techies will continue to have high end desktops in their arsenal of tools but they are a small portion of the population. They will probably also build and fix them too.