The PC era is over

Yesterday, I chuckled reading the many posts about IDC fourth-quarter smartphone shipment data. As many writers observed, manufacturers shipped more smartphones than PCs -- 100.9 million versus 92.1 million, respectively. This turnabout was inevitable, and it is more than hugely symbolic. The cloud-connected mobile device era has dawned.

Frankly, I shouldn't need to declare that the PC era is over, but I expect sharp criticism from many Betanews readers in comments. I say to you: End the denial, and look ahead rather than behind. The PC's decline is inevitable, as was the mainframe's. It was never a matter of if but when, and it's a process still underway that will take years to complete.

Use your noggin, PC defenders. Where is all the buzz, the excitement among businesses, consumers, developers and manufacturers? The last four years of mobile device buzz remind of the early 1990s, when publications like Computer Shopper, PC Magazine and PC Week wrote endlessly about computer hardware and software. Where's the PC chatter today? It's about smartphones outselling personal computers or tablets cannibalizing PC sales, and that's about it. But mobile applications buzz is simply everywhere. Then there is the obsession with new smartphones and the nearly 100 tablets announced this year. My god, pageviews exploded for my two February 7 stories (here and here) and Motorola XOOM tablet pricing -- oh, and it reminds me of the kind of debate PC pricing would have generated in the 1990s.

It's All About Shifting Relevancy

A year ago this month I declared that "The Windows era is over," which led to lots of commenters calling me looney or an idiot; coincidently, Apple market capitalization exceeded Microsoft that day. Last month, Microsoft declared it had sold 300 million copies of Windows 7 since its October 2009 launch, which surely doesn't look like the end of an era -- or does it? Cellular manufacturers shipped more smartphones in 2010 -- 302.6 million, according to IDC  -- than Microsoft sold Windows 7 licenses in 14 months. In one quarter, more cell phones ship than PCs during an entire year. Cellular handsets, quite honestly, are pocket computers. Apple's App Store has more than 300,000 applications and last month topped 10 billion downloads. The cloud-connected device noise is simply deafening.

Many people will snark at my declaration, assuming that the end of the era is the end of the PC. Not at all. In the 1980s computing and informational relevance shifted from the mainframe to the personal computer in part because of lower costs and greater availability. PCs cost much less than mainframes and made information more available, essentially more mobile, to more people. Similar transition is happening today, as cloud-connected mobile devices make more information available to more people in more places than do PCs. Computing and informational relevance is shifting once again. The mainframe didn't go away because of the PC era, the mainframe's relevancy simply declined. The PC won't go away, but it's relevancy is declining.

Technological displacement is centuries old and fairly consistent phenomenon. Something new comes along and erodes interest in something else. The pace is slow at first reaching a crescendo, where there is a dramatic shift to the new from the old occurring within a short time span. Some older technologies continue for a time and disappear, while many others remain but in new niches. Some recent -- and not-too-hard-to-grasp -- examples:

  • Horse drawn carriages and trains
  • Trains and automobiles
  • Telegraphs and telephones
  • Mainframes and PCs
  • Digital music downloads and CDs

There are so many other examples, but I'm trying to make a simple point not give a history lesson. Trains were displaced by autos in the United States but they didn't go away. PCs displaced mainframes, but they're still used as well. Landlines and wireless phones are near their dramatic changing point in many mature markets. Newspapers are in process of being displaced by Web content for PCs and mobile devices, but are likely to co-exist with them for a long time. It's foreshadowing that News Corp. would invest $30 million to launch the tablet-only The Daily newspaper. Times they are a changing now.

Would You Want to be Buried with Your PC?

On Halloween 2008, I asked in a Microsoft Watch post: "Will your next PC be a smartphone?" I've been on a tear about the PC era waning before the cloud-connected mobile device era for years. Feature phones and smartphones are much more personal than are PCs. Eleven months ago, writing about a prediction made by a Google employee, I followed up with, here at Betanews: "Will the smartphone replace the PC in three years?" My answer was "Yes." But I'll qualify it by adding tablets to smartphones replacing PCs, something that's already occurring, according to Gartner and IDC.

Compared to PCs, the cellular phone market is:

  • Enormously bigger -- for every PC in use there are five cell phone subscribers, according to the United Nations.
  • Captive -- most people carry mobiles most of the time, but not PCs.
  • Connected -- cell phones have always-on connections, unlike most PCs.
  • More personal -- people care more about their cell phones than PCs. Who asks to be buried with their computers? But it's a common request for mobiles.
  • More global -- more people are likely to have cell phones than PCs, particularly in emerging markets.

I can already guess the comments, like this one to my March 2010 smartphone post: "Oh, yeah. The infamous annual 'death of the PC' prediction rears its ugly head again." I'm not suggesting the PC is dead or even will soon go away. But its era of dominance is over.

Be honest. Which is more important to you? Your PC or your smartphone? Which would cause you more distress to fail or to be lost -- your PC or smartphone? Which could you more easily live without for a day or a week -- your PC or smartphone? Which would you rather carry with you most of the time -- your PC or smartphone? Which are you more likely to replace this year -- your PC or smartphone? For which do you read most about newer models and plan which one next to buy -- your PC or smartphone. It's about relevance, and which device has more of it. Please answer the questions in comments, and feel free to answer about tablets along with smartphones or even instead.

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