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How tablets can save the PC

April 11, 2013

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.

‑ Winston Churchill

These are tough times for the personal computer: The 30-something device that everyone used to covet is being crowded out by younger objects of our affection. Time for a makeover.

Visionaries like Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Apple’s Steve Jobs started a revolution by imagining that computers — at the time, massive, room-filling machines that basically just did arithmetic — could become indispensable tools for the masses. PCs led to a world filled with powerful electronics we could take anywhere: Desktops became laptops, phones became mobile and then smart. And now there are tablets.

PCs aren’t going to disappear, but they are no longer the most important computer we use. Many people carry three computers now: smartphone, tablet and laptop. The laptop is becoming the one we use least. Even some of our enduring PC use is reflex and habit. If we lost the use of a laptop, would life grind to a halt? Not with all these other options.

PC sales had their worst quarter ever in the first three months of this year, down almost 14 percent over the same 2012 period and the first full quarter when computers shipped with Windows 8. Analyst Bob O’Donnell from top research firm IDC connected these dots. Per Yahoo News:

At this point, unfortunately, it seems clear that the Windows 8 launch not only failed to provide a positive boost to the PC market, but appears to have slowed the market,” O’Donnell explains. “While some consumers appreciate the new form factors and touch capabilities of Windows 8, the radical changes to the UI, removal of the familiar Start button, and the costs associated with touch have made PCs a less attractive alternative to dedicated tablets and other competitive devices. Microsoft will have to make some very tough decisions moving forward if it wants to help reinvigorate the PC market.

There was a time when bad computer hardware or software were mere bumps in the road. But the problem for PCs now is that there are hardware alternatives. Great ones.

Chief among the alternatives are the computers we are never without — the smartphone and tablet. My own habits have changed dramatically over the past few years, and especially in the last year with the advent of Siri, which I use to take dictation constantly. I haven’t been without a laptop since my first iPhone and iPad, but I am increasingly inclined to do anything I need — work or play — without one.

The reason is simple. Laptops have few unique features, and some of those they do have aren’t important to most consumers. People don’t need them to edit video or pictures ‑ two of the heaviest lifts in consumer computing. People don’t need them to store pictures or videos or documents ‑ that is what Google Drive, SkyDrive and Dropbox are for.

PCs also have acute disadvantages in battery life and true portability; it isn’t possible to use your laptop standing in line or waiting in traffic. But check out the people around you in line and at the red light. They’re immersed in mobile devices.

Because we have steadily increased our use of smartphones and tablets we’ve learned that we can rely on them a lot more than we expected. Opportunistic use — tapping away while standing or walking — has in a very short time conditioned us to realize that mobile devices are full-fledged tools we don’t have to resort to but would choose first.

New things don’t necessarily kill old things. Television was an enormous disrupter of the movie industry, but Hollywood adapted with improvements in audio and video that could not be matched on the home screen. In the TV era, movies and theaters didn’t wither and die. TV improved the movies.

Tablets can do the same for PCs.

The challenge for PC makers is to tap into the compelling reasons why traditional computers are still relevant, not perpetuate what has become an outdated commodity business. That’s already happening in a couple of ways: Netbooks are being tossed into the mix again, primarily thanks to Google. These offer a low-cost, full-keyboard experience at disposable prices (Chromebook Pixel notwithstanding).

At the high end, there should be premium models, just as there are with other consumer goods: overpowered and over-featured machines some people just have to have. Touchscreens are being slowly introduced as a new laptop interface — enabled in large part by the new functionality in Windows 8. And we’ve only begun to see the possibilities of hybrid devices — offering the promise of the best of both the tablet and laptop world — despite the poor showing so far for most, notably Microsoft’s Surface models.

But the fight for the middle is over. PC powerhouses such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard are struggling to reinvent themselves. Apple, meanwhile, thrives in the tablet and smartphone business.

There is little value proposition for a bad $400 computer versus a great $400 tablet. Children and tech-phobes take to tablets like ducks to water because the learning curve is so slight and the possibilities limitless.

So as Churchill might have said, this isn’t the end of the PC. But it is the beginning of the end of the PC as we know it. As it should be.

Comments
2 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Mmmmm. I don’t see the capability of plugging in certain accessories in tablets and cellphones, such as electronic musical instruments, printers, etc. I believe there will always be a need for desktop PCs in one form or another.

Posted by act1 | Report as abusive
 

This article assumes that “computers” are essentially a single thing with a single purpose. This is far from the case.

Tablets and smartphones are mainly useful for shopping. While this activity may be the main purpose of most users of computing technology, and while this is also the main preoccupation of business, it is hardly the center of what is happening in computing. It is what is happening in retailing and in interpersonal communication.

There is also a more serious, technological world which produces things as well as consuming things. This includes serious writing and the production of technological artifacts, such as programs. Anyone who has tried to write a lengthy piece on a smartphone or a tablet knows this. Apps are not designed, coded and tested on tablets either. Or laptops.

For most people, computers are not really necessary. This may reduce their numbers in the marketplace, but it will not reduce their importance. It is more like there is a new technological application out there that is dramatically changing the retail, entertainment and information industries.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive
 

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