The industry segments devices by context: desktop, notebook, mobile, even ultra-mobile and wearable. But do we, the people, think about our computers that way?
Form factor has relevance to vendors, but it ignores how people actually use devices. If a device does things you want, then it’s a personal computer. Desktop, notebook, palmtop, or wrist top: Who cares?
It’s the PERSONAL that defines PCs, not the form factor — and the industry has lost sight of that. The traditional PC installed base is shrinking – we reached “peak PC” several years ago – which is the surest sign that the nature of the PC has changed.
Let’s look at the big picture:
So there are around 4.4 billion devices with processors and operating systems in use, and less than a third of them are traditional PCs. As Apple noted in their latest announcement, iPad sales are greater than the notebook sales of any PC competitor. But IDC and Gartner don’t count them as “PCs” so that fact has to be called out to make a point about the iPad’s popularity.
There’s lots of debate about whether or not people can do “real work” on a tablet or a smartphone. But given the drop in PC shipments and the shrinking PC installed base, the people have spoken: yes, we can.
Those of us who used personal computers in the 1970s know that even a slow computer – the Apple ][ had a 1MHz processor – is very much faster than no computer at all. Today’s smartphones, with their multi-core processors, GPUs, multi-gigabyte storage, and high resolution displays, are way more powerful than the computers that ignited the PC revolution.
In large swaths of Africa and Asia a cheap smartphone is a PC: people surf the web, bank, game, and text. They may not have running water but they have a PC in everything but name.
Granted, a smartphone or tablet is far from ideal for many types of work. I wouldn’t want to write my novel on an iPhone, or edit a feature length movie. But if I had to, I could. And I’m sure that somewhere, someone is doing just that.
If this seems unlikely, given the limitations of iOS on iPads, consider that iOS is only 12 years old, and Android is a year younger. The original Mac didn’t get pre-emptive multitasking for 17 years. And Windows didn’t have a true multi-tasking OS until Windows XP arrived in 2001 – 20 years after the debut of MS/DOS.
Let’s give Apple and Google a few more years to improve.
The Storage Bits take
My iPad Pro has replaced a notebook computer, as it has for many other people. But industry watchers don’t count tablets as PCs.
Why is this important? In product development, it is vital that planners and architects know who is the target market, and how they will use the product.
That focus on the customer is difficult to maintain over time. Customer dynamics change, as their environments and applications evolve, and cost structures shift, making use cases hard to predict at the beginning of a two- to three-year development push.
Besides a top management commitment to an unyielding customer focus, it takes funding for market research, prototype testing, robust industrial design, and – this is the hard part – a degree of self-knowledge that technologists rarely possess. Simply put, it is easier to keep revving last year’s products using newer technology than to imagine – in Wayne Gretzky’s words – where the puck is going to be.
Traditional PCs won’t disappear – I use my desktop nearly every day – but the marketshare numbers you read about are useless. The actual market has moved to tablets and smartphones and most of the major PC vendors, with the obvious exception of Apple, are trapped revving last year’s product while buyers are moving to much more personal computers.
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