Is The PC Dead?

Is the PC Dead? This is the question that has been probing the minds of many over the past year. It seems with the advent of widely accessible mobile computing, the death knells for the old white-box PC are ringing ever so louder. As a software engineer/application developer/programmer sort, I am forced to evaluate the market place, looking at what all sorts of variables: What are manufacturers producing? What are people buying? What sort of demands are applications making on hardware? What potential applications are there for the available hardware? What platforms and development tools are addressing the demands of developers and companies? This never-ending crystal ball gazing has lead me to believe that the PC is not dead at all, rather more alive and kicking than ever — not because the PC remains the same. Rather the PC has evolved from its original conception to meet the new demands.

One first has to ask “So what is a PC anyways?” before one can answer the question “Is the PC Dead?”  The letters “PC” form an abbreviation for “personal computer”, and was actually coined by Apple, but nowadays in light of Apple’s advertising campaign, a PC is thought to be a computer running Microsoft Windows. Apple has touted itself as something “different”, but for all practical purposes a Mac is just another option in the vast arena of what could be called a PC. The use-cases for a Mac are really no different from that of a Windows based PC or any other operating system for that matter. So the question then is not “Are you a Mac or a PC?” This question is a question of similar to “Are you a Ford or Chevy?” – a question of brand. Really what one should ask is more similar to “Are you a sedan or a pickup?” One can be a Chevy Malibu or a Ford Taurus and answer “sedan” or a Chevy Colorado or Ford Ranger and answer “pickup”.

Similar to how automobiles evolved from the first automobile into the many classes of vehicles one has today, computers are evolving beyond what one might call a “PC”. The first digital computers came about in the 1940’s and were room-sized behemoths that were slow, power hungry, and prone to failure. These computers were the property of governments, universities, and corporations who could afford them, as they were expensive. The personnel needed to maintain them were rare and highly specialized: usually the ones who built the machines. But as time marched on, computers evolved finding all sorts of applications in business. The cost of the computers therefore came down and the market diversified some to include not only the large “mainframe” computers, but “midrange” systems in the 1960’s. Attached to these computers were things called “dumb-terminals” – basically a screen and keyboard that that did timesharing on the central computer. This market continued to grow and expand until the mid-1970’s when computers were miniaturized (largely in part, thanks to the space program!). The idea an individual actually owning a computer became a reality. The MITS Company developed the Altair 8080 – the computer that is largely credited as being the first personal computer. Bill Gates and Paul Allen wrote a programming language called Altair BASIC for the machine and started Microsoft. Soon thereafter, Apple, Commodore, IBM among many others started making computers that were geared toward single users and the term “Personal Computer” was coined to set these sorts of computers apart from their mainframe and midrange counterparts. With the advent of the PC came many other simultaneous developments:

  • The PC industry: As the PC industry took off, the IBM PC became the de-facto standard for the industry and IMB “clones” were produced by any number of manufacturers. At first, these looked and felt like IBM’s computers, but the styles changed and each company styled these computers as they saw fit. Likewise, the applications of these diversified. Some were geared towards graphic design and publishing. Others were geared toward business. And yet others were geared towards consumers. The consumer PC’s market took on a life of its own with some computers specialized for media, gaming, or simple applications such as email and chatting.
  • The Modern Internet: During the 1980’s the demand for interconnectivity between PC’s grew too. Enthusiasts and corporations alike set up Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) so users to dial in and interact with other users in forums, via email, and even play multiplayer games. Likewise, networks were set up in businesses, schools, and corporations so users could share resources like files and printers. These were “Local Area Networks” or LAN’s.  Government had already developed interconnectivity for networks across the world—the Internet. Some larger BBS systems created hybrid services of BBS systems and connectivity to the Internet to create Internet Service Providers that used dial-up networking. These were supplanted by purpose-built internet connectivity from DSL and Cable providers. In the early 2000’s LAN’s were then connected to the Internet and world-wide interconnectivity became a reality.
  • Portability: While interconnectivity was growing, so was the demand for portability. The first portable computers were called “luggables”. These were suitcase-sized computers that were more akin to a boat anchor than they were anything else, but nevertheless got people thinking about portability. As hardware continued to shrink and require less power, portable computers evolved into the first clamshell-style “laptops” or “notebooks” that are ubiquitous today. The more recently development actually was envisioned long ago but has now just come through to fruition: the tablet computer. There were early attempts at this in the mid 1990’s and Microsoft attempted to create a “Tablet PC” and an “ultra-mobile PC” in the early 2000’s. While these never found mainstream appeal, they did find niche markets. With the advent of the iPad and iPod Touch, the tablet computer finally found mainstream appeal.

This walk down memory lane shows how the PC went from a nerd’s hobby to spawn a diverse set of multi-billion dollar enterprises.

Yet while the PC industry was rocking right along through the 1980’s, 1990’s, and 2000’s another important developing industry was also taking shape, namely the wireless industry. The wireless industry is really just about as old as the PC industry dating back to the 1940’s. The precursors to the modern mobile phone were originally radios linked to a base station that connected the wireless signal to the existing telephone networks of the day. The wireless industry, however, has always had a tight coupling with the available handsets and the networks they used. As the networks changed, so did the handsets that used these networks. These developments can be broken into 3 major eras:

  • Analog Phones: The first commercial mobile networks, (later dubbed “1G” networks) started taking root in the 1970 in Europe. These early networks used large “bag phones” or “car phones” that were portable but not conveniently so. The first handheld devices came out in the early 80’s such as the Motorola DynaTec. These devices were bulky, used analog signals, and were generally priced outside the range of most average consumers.
  • Feature Phones: This, however, started to change with the advent of 2G digital networks in the early 1990’s. The digital networks allowed users to transmit and received digitally encoded data laying the foundation for mobile digital communication. An early implementation of this was SMS or “text” messaging. The industry evolved, implementing more reliable, faster bandwidth and likewise so did the phones. This gave birth to the “feature phone” era. Feature phones were epitomized by the Motorola “RAZR” line. These phones had many features (hence the name “feature phone”) such as cameras, rudimentary email clients, rudimentary internet browsers via Wireless Application Protocol (WAP), Multimedia Messaging (MMS), and early support for the ability to download applications. Most of these applications were games, however. It was during the late days of the feature phone era when people started using their phones for more than calling people and snapping pictures. Some users used mobile phones as modems to connect to the Internet from anywhere.
  • Smartphones: As the market evolved, 3G and 4G networks came online and consumers started purchasing smartphones. Early smartphones were basically Portable Digital Assistants (PDA’s) with mobile phone capabilities such as Blackberry devices. These devices began to take on more and more features that were typically reserved for computers. Nowadays, such devices have sophisticated browsers, email clients, and countless other applications in a mobile friendly form. Bandwidth from 3G and 4G networks now rivals DSL and Cable connections and the prices have come down such that most average consumers can afford to pay for it.

As mobile devices became more PC-like, and PC device became more mobile-like, there was only a matter of time before the wireless industry collided with the PC industry. Many laptop and tablet computers nowadays come equipped with 3G connectivity built in. The application pool too is becoming less segregated. Apps as of right now designed for tablets can run on smartphones as well. And with some modification can run on PC’s. The general approach of the wireless industry to date has kept mobile operating systems out of the PC industry and vice-versa. Microsoft has Windows and Windows Phone, Apple has iOS and Mac OS X. Google has a rudimentary desktop OS called Chrome OS based on Linux and also has Android for mobile devices. But now that tablet computers are starting to don mobile operating systems, the line between mobile and PC operating systems is becoming skewed. There are a number of tablet computers that run Android and iOS, but don’t use 3G and 4G networks, only LAN based networks. Microsoft, with Windows 8, is going to skew this even more with one operating system designed for mobile tablets and PC’s alike.

With these two major industries colliding, PC’s aren’t going to die. Rather the PC and wireless industries will become subsets of a larger, more diversified, and more interconnected computing industry. On one end of the spectrum, there will be the mobile computer-phones and on the other will be the high-end workstations and servers. In between these two ends will be a gradient such that it will be difficult to delineate between smartphones and tablets, tablets and PC’s, PC’s and servers. To some extent, this is already happening. The iPod Touch is a handheld computer without phone capabilities, yet does most everything larger tablet computers can do. Devices such as the Asus Transformer and the Dell Inspiron Duo tablets behave like laptops as do many iPad and Android Tablet when using docking stations that have keyboards. Likewise, some smartphones have large screens and a keyboard (such as the HTC Desire). On the higher end, some laptops (such as the HP EliteBook 8460p) are coming equipped with quad-core processors that rival the computing power of servers, yet at the same time these devices have 3G connectivity like the smartphones. All these devices share connectivity via LAN’s and wireless networks alike. With time, the permutations will become more diverse and even more interconnected.

So is the PC Dead? No. The PC is different. The PC is dynamic. The PC is doing what it has always done: evolving, changing, and adapting with the times to meet new and unique demands while performing the same-old-same-old at the same time. The challenge for a developer such as myself is to address this. I asked myself, what can I use to write applications that will capture as many users as I possibly can without having to write the same program umpteen times? That’s a difficult question to answer as it largely depends on the intentions of the application user and the type of application. But still, in just playing around, I did write one application that I was able to run on every major platform for smartphones, tablets, laptops, desktops, and servers alike. It can be done. The question for me is am I going to change with the industry or become a relic as many of the naysayers are saying about the PC. I think I am embracing change.


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