Why The PC Will Die Soon

The PC has already been replaced by the tablet, in some hugely important and meaningful ways. Its day in the sun is all but over.

The New York Times suggests, vaguely, that today on the eve of the iPad 3 announcement the future of the PC looks dim. "As New iPad Debut Nears, Some See Decline of PCs" is its hand-wavy position on the matter, with a first paragraph quoting Apple CEO Tim Cook pondering "the day will come when devices like the Apple iPad outsell traditional personal computers." Forget the sales figures—it's not simply about how many of these things are bought ... that's almost irrelevant. In far more important ways the tablet era is already here, and the PC's relevance may end sooner than you think. It's all but over.

The argument starts with the iPad 3's strongly rumored super-high-resolution screen at 2,408 by 1,536 pixels on a 9.7-inch LCD. That's around the level needed to qualify it as a "retina" display, meaning that at typical user-to-screen distances, your fallible human eyeball isn't physically capable of spotting the pixels. For all intents and purposes, your brain will see the iPad 3's screen as equivalent in quality to a (glowing) printed page from a glossy magazine. It's a screen tech that probably surpasses the pixel resolution of your laptop, your home PC, and definitely your fancy full 40-inch HDTV. The screen alone is an innovation that may enable a whole new approach to e-publishing, at an optical quality that bests printed text in books or magazines, and it could even change gaming—imagine holding this portable high-res unit in your hands, with the characters of the game reacting to the way you move the device.

Then look at innovations like the new Square Register iPad app, bringing smart user-customizable digital cash register powers to small businesses across the U.S.—enabling a radical makeover of the way small cafes and so on process payments. It's cheap, powerful, adds tangible value through its built-in analytics, and comes with Square's industry-shaking low payment processing fees. Sure, there are a clutch of solutions like this available for PCs, and some stores certainly do run PCs or laptops as their cash register/EFTPOS/inventory tool ... but Square's system has a low price on its side, a highly intuitive interface, and great simplicity. All of that is specifically enabled by the tablet OS and its incredibly natural user interface, meaning that even the most tech-averse store owner can in effect build their own customized payments app.

Meanwhile, motion-control and gestural full touch control is the purview of tablets, although laptop touchpads incorporate a lesser version of it. Mobile webcam tech coupled with specialized apps for image recognition (or even, shock, horror, QR code reading) are a match made in tablet heaven, enabling all sorts of amazing new businesses. Voice control with location awareness is the stomping ground of Apple's Siri, and Google's upcoming Assistant rival—not systems you'll typically use on a PC.

In contrast, check out the clutch of new laptops that have been revealed at this week's CeBIT show in Germany. Much attention is given to the new ultrabook class, but these machines really aren't innovative anymore—they're mere clones (in some cases almost down to the millimeter) of a recipe that Apple dreamed up for its MacBook Air. Ditching spinning drives and integrating gesture-sensing touchpads and webcams, the Air and its ilk represent the last gasp of laptop tech, refined and polished to post-modern minimalist perfection because there's almost nothing there apart from a screen, pointing device, and keyboard. There's nowhere really novel for the laptop to go from here. The desktop PC hasn't really been innovated in decades: Processors have gotten faster, graphics cards have got cleverer, and drives have gotten bigger or switched to solid state, but they're physically similar in design, and practically similar in use. There's no revolution going on on the desktop either.

It would seem that most of the innovation in computing is happening in tablets, partly because they're a more flexible platform from the get-go, with pleasantly low reliance on legacy computing paradigms, and partly because the innovation well for traditional PCs is all but dried up. Where mobile PCs can be innovated are in their OS's and user interfaces. But remember that Apple is planning to bring more of its experience learned from the iPad and iPhone to its Mac computing platform, and Microsoft is trying the same with Metro in its upcoming Windows 8. And as an ironic signal of how stuck in the past the traditional computing paradigm is, one of the current most popular questions on the help forum is "how do I disable Metro?"

As for the biggest criticism leveled against the tablet paradigm, it really doesn't hold water. People say you can't use a tablet for what you would traditionally use a computer for. But that's letting the past influence the future too much—much of what we use computers for, and the systems they use to let us work, emerged simultaneously with their own development (could IBM, way back when it was a key player in innovating the PC have imagined Angry Birds, Facebook, PowerPoint, or Folding at Home? Nope). 

Computers are about getting things done, and tablets enable wholly new ways to access and process new and old data—to "get things done"—and over time these new ways of using tablets will replace the old ways of using PCs. It's as simple as that, same tasks (and more tasks)—different tool. And we're right at the beginning of the tablet computing era, with bigger and better things yet to come.

What this criticism is is really a failure of imagination—a "not invented here" argument that ignores the innovations to come from the tablet PC genre that we've not yet even imagined. Proof positive that it's baseless comes from a recent survey from IDG Connect that says 12% of owners of iPads in enterprise no longer use their laptop, preferring a tablet instead. 54% more said the iPad had partly replaced their laptop, and 6% of folks surveyed even said it had completely replaced their desktop PC (an additional 33% of respondees to this question admitted it had partly replaced it). And this is the absolute traditional stomping ground of the PC—at work, poring over Excel sheets, or putting together PowerPoint slides.

No one's saying the PC is dead, or that sales are going to quickly dwindle (though there's some evidence that sales erosion is already taking place). The pocket calculator, for example, still sells millions of units yearly, decades after being supplanted for most uses. The PC is simply too entrenched in commercial and home life in the developed world to simply disappear overnight. But what we're saying is that its glory time is over, and its importance as an innovation hub—enabling new exploitations and whole new billion-dollar industries—is soon to go. Tablets won't replace every use case for the PC instantly, and for a short while hybrid solutions like Asus' Transformer may have a role to play.

But stare into the shiny screen of an iPad 3 tomorrow, and tell us that the future isn't already here.

[Image: Flickr user byronv2, James Vaughan, and Mike Fernwood]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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37 Comments

  • 5781e724

    It's 2014 now and PC's are still very much alive and kicking. People such as yourself have been claiming PCs are dying since as far back as the 90s. Can we find a new dead horse to kick as this is so getting old.

  • Ninja-jason51

    I much rather have my PC with its mult-harddrive slots, multi-graphics slot and all of its power it is now and what it can be in the future.

  • rattyuk

    Yes, but there are an awful lot of people who don't. They were over-served by a computer. Tablets and phones are better for them.

    For all who have posted here defending their computer choices, you are missing the point. This is not about people who sit on the internet all day and comment about their personal computing preferences, this is about the vast majority of people that simple don't need to compute, they just want to take photos, listen to music, play casual games, watch movies and video or audio chat friends and relatives.

    That doesn't require some spotty lad in Best Buy or target to talk down to them and sell them a computer.

  • Jimbo

    The PC will die soon ??????? So all Graphic Design will be done using your finger ???????????  That is like asking a painter to throw away the brush, and use his elbows. By the way, paint brushes are believed to have been used 2.5 million years ago. DON'T see the mouse leaving to soon, unless evolution from using Ipads develops fingers on our fingers.

  • Jeffery Chapman

    Thank you Bob Tofu for demonstrating the dreamworld Apple fanboys live in. If you predicted the death of the PC in the 1990's you would have seriously looked like a fool considering PC's have completely dominated everything to do with computers since then and you had to go to a museum or something to actually find a Mac. Mac's were and still are meaningless when it comes to PCs/computers. (Macs had a little run about a decade ago with A/V processing but PCs quickly came to do it better. Hm, I wonder what kind of computers Pixar uses?) If you think the success of the iPod supports your view of Macs, your are an even greater fool. They only thing that makes Macs relevant at all, and their greatest claim to fame I might add, IS THE FACT THAT YOU CAN INSTALL PARALLELS AND MAKE THEM RUN WINDOWS. Ooh, I think you'll be crying yourself to sleep tonight over that one. Time for a support group, Bob, or grief and loss counselling.

  • Bob Tofu

    As i once predicted in the 1990's.  The PC must die.  Apple all the way.  It is like this.  If you own a PC its like owning a Yugo.  An apple is more like a Corvette.  Sorry PC'ers, your party is soon over.
    Live it, love it, learn it.  (From a 1988 Apple poster)  

  • 5781e724

    Too bad the Apple computers are also PC... Remember PC = Personal Computer, not "Wintel" or "Windows" or "Intel".

  • jason

    I'm pretty sure the PC I built for under $1100 can kick the shit out any apple product out there.

  • Greg

    LOL OVER HEY BOB DIDN'T YOU KNOW YOU ARE DRIVING AN OVER PRICED OVERGLORIFIED PC? MAC has already died,You are delusional. There is nothing original about the MAC with the exception of the OS and I can do that too!

  • Wilson Jamie Badi

    It all depends on the users' necessity; PC will still be widely used and wont be phased out too soon!

  • marvin nubwaxer

    i have a netbook.  have no need for a tablet.  tried a kindle--meh. 
    i think you must be getting some kind of payola for pushing today's fad, the tablet.

  • mm

    FOR THE LOVE OF MICROCHIPS!!!! PCs are not dying; I wish
    every half baked tech article would stop saying this, because it is not what
    you mean.

     

    “A personal
    computer (PC) is any
    general-purpose computer whose size, capabilities, and original sales price
    make it useful for individuals.”

     

    This includes Desktops, Laptops, Netbooks and
    Tablets By the way, they are all PCs

     

    The smart phone is bridging that fine line
    between phone and PC, but that’s a different matter.

     

    It doesn’t matter what operating system they
    have, so stop with the madness that the Personal Computer category is dying.
    There are plenty of windows and linux and yes a macbook and iMac and G5 are PCs
    as well.

     

    Get it out of your head that PC – Windows Desktop…..that
    is nonsense

     

    Just say what you mean that tablets are replacing
    desktops for some users.

     

    But until I see some actual sales numbers
    where consumers are buying ONLY tablets and nothing else, you can’t say that
    either.

     

    How many consumers who have purchased a
    tablet also have other computers? I’ll bet it is a pretty high percentage.

  • John Wojewidka

    Kit - I'm staring you in the eye: The future is not already here. Not your future, anyway.

    Agree with everyone here who says this is bunk (and a blatantly transparent fanbois article). I would add the only configuration that is truly useful is a pad with keyboard and cover. Wait, that's a laptop.Also, those figures quoted for that survey are suspect, for sure. Endemic problem with surveys. The words "partly replaced", here, could easily mean supplemented. I'd also throw in another 10% variation for lies. Many people like to tell the interviewer what they want to hear. And - really - I'd love to talk with those people who claimed they created PowerPoints on a tablet. Any tablet!By they way, the Transformer was created to allow people to get actual work done with fewer compromises. It is not a hybrid, it is a different kind of tool (And, didn't I just read that phrase somewhere?).I want to call you on something else you stated as pseudo fact:

    '...they're mere clones (in some cases almost down to the millimeter) of a recipe that Apple dreamed up for its MacBook Air."

    Sorry, sorry, sorry! I can't stomach thoughts like this any more. Get real! Do you really think the idea of a small, thin, light, powerful computer came to Jobs in a lightning-bolt head-smacker in the middle of the night? Anyone who has lugged around a portable over 5 pounds wished - and could easily imagine - this so-called recipe.

    Losing faith, here. No more B.S. articles.

  • Paul

    I would LOVE to know what Kit Eaton wrote this article on. 

    Until Apple supports both a bluetooth keyboard and their magic trackpad (mouse), I don't see the post PC era coming anytime soon. (many would add a second display as a requirement). It will be more like the "AND PC era" for some time to come. Authoring on an iPad works in a pinch or for taking notes, but it's a far cry from being better than working on a large display with a keyboard and a mouse.

  • Mark Franklin

    What about the core gamers out there? Touch based games are fun and they past the time, but when I get home at night I don't crave Angry Birds. I play very graphically intense first person shooters and MMOs. A touch screen device just doesn't have the precision I need for FPS games (let alone the graphics capabilities I desire.) And so far as MMOs go... I need my macros! 

  • Bud Thompson

    I second Jeffery Chapman, Mark Hudson and Susan Howard.

    What is Kit Eaton taking?

  • wleara

    Without a doubt, this article was written by a 20-something with 5 minutes exposure to the computer industry.  What a narrow view!

  • Jeffery Chapman

    Holy smokes! I swear Fast Company is owned by Apple. Kit Eaton certainly is.
    This article is such a mess I would have to write a longer one just to explain it all. And I certainly wouldn't write it on a tablet. I would key it in on a keyboard! If I am using a keyboard does that mean I'm on a PC? What are you comparing exactly??? Desktop vs iPad? Technically a tablet is a PC. A Personal Computer.
    The argument starts with a high-res screen?? Im sorry. Hi-res is nice but it isnt even a function.
    Second - Point of sale entry devices - push button (tap screen) entry registers are the demise of the PC? What the...?
    Nothing new in computers? Cloning MacBooks??? What the heck has Apple ever innovated except hardware and graphical look and feel? There is massive innovation happening in the PC world (specifically on the microsoft platform where pretty much all new development occurs - apple just waits on the sidelines and picks the odd thing to put into their nice form factor and marketing.
    What is a computer? Computers are processing power with input and output devices. A tablet has fewer than a "PC" (although I am not sure what you mean by "PC")
    My first tablet PC that I got over a decade ago had more functionality and broader range of application than even the latest iPad. The screen was not as nice though. Oh well, I survived.
    Years ago, my tablet PC had pen, touch, acceleromter, keyboard, camera, finger print, voice and pretty much every type of input, and was 10 times more useful than an iPad is now.
    So we are all going to conduct our business and personal lives on Angry Birds and Facebook now? I dont' need CRM, design, accounting software, printers, networks,large screens, etc, anymore?
    You say the PC is in paliative care but "No one is saying it is dead" and sales are off the hook?
    Of course there is a segment of people whose computing needs are best served by an iPad. I travel with one when I don't need more funtionality. But isn't a tablet a PC. Doesn't everyone need a keyboard for their iPad to make it even remotely useful for anything that actually matters. Gee, once you add a keyboard and an clamshell case isn't it a laptop (just an impaired one). Hey, maybe someone will invent a mouse for the iPad to make it even more useful. And then finally, as with Mac computers, is greatest claim to fame will eventually be that it can run windows... but it won't be a PC right? Whatever.
    Microsoft tablets already allow these i/o, and everything else, of course.
    Kit Eaton, what is a computer? What did you write this article on?
    I apologize for writing so much, I will stop now. These stupid apple fan-boy articles show up every once in a while and they drive me nuts.

  • Dale B

    Last I heard, President Obama said "we need to get high speed internet access to MOST parts of the country." How's that tablet gonna run on DSL? Joking aside, having worked for a company that handed out iPads, there is a place for these, just like there's a place for the iPhone - where simple wins. But for computing (beyond email and Facebook,) I need a computer, not a tablet.
    Back to joking, that was a risky article for this publication. Some people 13 years ago predicted the end of the internet.

  • Susan Howard

    This article really misses the boat for anyone who works on a computer. I've been an iPad user since it first came out. I love my iPad and it goes everywhere I do (I have a compartment for it in my purse). It will never replace my laptop. I use my laptop to create websites, edit photos, create graphics, do our business accounting on it, create brochures, create spreadsheets almost every day. I can't even access a website made with flash on my iPad. When a tablet can allow the loading of software packages, when it has a DVD drive/burner, when it has full file management capabilities, when it increases it's storage capacity by at least 2000%, etc., etc., it will not replace the PC.