April 18, 2013, 10:45 AM — Last week's news wasn't generous to PCs. In fact, half the Internet was ready to eulogize our beloved black boxes after market research showed that computer shipments fell by double-digit percentages in the first quarter. Stick a fork in 'em, the common wisdom declared. PCs are done.
But nothing could be further from the truth. PCs aren't dead--they're microwaves. But not for much longer.
Hear me out.
From marvelous to meh
Right up until the early '90s, computers were a luxury, an oddity even. If your childhood chum had a 386, you were at his house every day, churning out ASCII art on a dot-matrix printer and playing asynchronous PBEM games or MUDs. Good times! Today, however, everyone in every neighborhood has a PC, just as everyone in every neighborhood has a stove, a refrigerator, and a microwave.
Our wondrous electronic windows into the world have evolved into ho-hum appliances--indispensable, yet unexciting.
Curious, I performed a quick, completely unscientific poll, asking about 20 nontechie friends, grandmothers, aunts, social-media acquaintances, and convenience-store employees the reason for their most recent computer purchase, whenever that may have been. The answers were unanimous across the board: They all bought their new computers when their previous computer broke.
And you do the very same thing with a stove, refrigerator, or microwave. You buy a new one when you absolutely have to, and not a moment sooner.
It's sad, really. (Do you realize how many microscopic, cutting-edge transistors are packed onto every single computer chip? Billions.) But it's not surprising. A whole range of factors have coalesced into a perfect storm, all helping to turn PCs into a commodity appliance.
First and foremost, of course, is the economy.
As currencies burn, unemployment rages, and belts tighten all around, consumers and companies alike are squeezing their bottom dollars tighter than a miser squeezes a tube of toothpaste. When you're scrounging to pay for dinner, the prospect of plopping down $420--the average selling price of a nontouch Windows laptop over the holiday season--simply isn't enticing, especially if your current PC still works well enough. (And even if it only works "well enough.") You could buy a fridge for that kind of cash!
Speaking of which, there's a great chance your old PC does, in fact, still hold up nicely. Improvements to computer performance have slowed to a near crawl over the past few years, with mere 10% CPU gains being the new annual norm. Between that and the rise of the cloud, current-day software still runs fine on five-year-old computers. A wee bit slow, perhaps--but still "well enough."
Making matters worse for manufacturers (but better for consumers), modern-day PC hardware lasts forever if you keep it free of those dreaded dust bunnies. If your current hardware works just dandy and a new one won't give you much extra oomph, what's the point in upgrading early?
The same thinking applies to refrigerators and stoves. There's a reason people don't swap out their appliances annually.
Manufacturers aren't exactly helping their own cause, either.
The race toward ever-lower prices has resulted in the mass production of ho-hum, cookie-cutter, commodity computers. Is it any surprise that shoppers treat these black holes of non-brilliance as appliances? The PC landscape has been devoid of any real hardware innovation for as long as memory serves--especially at the affordable end of the spectrum, where the vast majority of sales occur. The towers and clamshells of today bear a striking resemblance to the computers of a decade ago. They're just a bit thinner and occasionally clad in MacBook-mimicking aluminum.
Design "evolution" has thus far consisted of nice little bonuses--proverbial ice makers in proverbial fridges--rather than must-have features that change the game and make you want to upgrade right now.
Despite all the talk about smartphones and tablets creating a post-PC world, the reality is probably closer to the "PC-plus" line touted by computer-industry stalwarts. It's a subtle distinction, but a crucial one. Tablets will never be able to replace PCs completely, considering computers' full-size keyboards, full-size screens, and beefy internals. But tablets don't have to--mobility's mere presence shakes the computing world to its quad-cores.
Let's face it: A lot of people don't need big keyboards and big screens for many consumptive tasks. "Well enough" rears its head once again. In many cases a tablet offers many of the benefits of a laptop, but at a fraction of a laptop's size--and more important, a fraction of a laptop's price. You also have to consider usability. From an interface-smoothness standpoint, a tablet priced from $200 to $500 blows the pants off of a similarly priced notebook.
Tablets no doubt pilfer some sales from what was once the realm of the laptop, but perhaps more crucially, their arrival likely elongates people's overall replacement cycles for their PCs. In the old days, if your PC--sedentary and monolithic, like so many other appliances--was your only computing device, you'd replace it if it slowed to a crawl. If you have a tablet, on the other hand, squeezing just ... one ... more ... year out of your clunky PC is a lot easier when you can email and FaceTwit and stream Netflix on your silky-smooth mobile device. (Why rush to replace an electric stove with a dead burner when most of your meals are microwaveable, anyway? Times are tough!)
Here's the problem: A mass migration to longer PC-replacement cycles means fewer people buying PCs on a yearly basis. In a worst-case scenario, that could lead to double-digit declines in yearly PC shipments until the market adjusts to the new reality. You know, kinda like the mammoth drop evidenced in the first quarter of this year.
Windows 8 waltzed into the middle of this maelstrom.
An overwhelming amount of words have been spilled about Windows 8, and a lot of those words have been negative. I don't have much to add, but I will say this: I think Windows 8's poor showing is a result of slowing overall PC sales, not the other way around. (Apple had a down quarter too, let's not forget.) If you need a new PC, then you need a new PC. That's a bottom-line reality of appliance purchasing.
That said, all the criticism focused on the modern UI could be pushing legions of would-be buyers into the "let's wait one more year" camp, which, as we've already discussed, could devastate yearly PC sales. Few people yearn to update their appliances as it is.
Redemption is in sight
As I said: PCs aren't dead, they're microwaves. But the sea changes rocking the computing landscape may once again elevate the PC beyond mundane appliance status before long.
Transitioning from an appliance to an alluring piece of cutting-edge technology will require a complete reimagining of the PC. Good news: That's already being covered, and amusingly, the revolution (in part, at least) is coming courtesy of Microsoft's oft-cursed operating system.
The finger-friendly possibilities of Windows 8 have sparked a wave of hardware design innovation the likes of which we've never seen. From basic hybrids to ultrathin tablets with PC-like power to dual-screen clamshells to all-in-ones that double as Android tablets, the first round of Windows 8 devices may be a bit clunky, but they're already changing the way we look at computing--and they're doing so by absorbing the basic design principles of the tablet usurpers.
Ditching appliance status requires making massive leaps in computer performance, too. Fortunately, chip makers are retooling the base design of CPUs and shifting workloads to graphics processors in order to push PCs to blistering new levels in the coming years.
That great power will come with great power efficiency, too--a key to kick-starting the allure of the PC in the days of long-lived tablets. Consider that Intel's upcoming Haswell processors and AMD's next-generation APUs are said to offer the PC performance we know and love, but with tablet-esque battery life. Intel's impending Bay Trail chips--the follow-up to the tablet-optimized Atom processors found in most of the first generation of Windows 8 tablets--will allow manufacturers to introduce long-lasting, sub-$600 hybrids and touchscreen Ultrabooks, growing the segment where all the real innovation is happening.
Before long, every tablet could have Surface Pro power without the Surface Pro's inherent limitations, and every laptop could transform into a sleek tablet when extreme portability is necessary. On that day, when hybrids finally make good on their promise, people will truly have an incentive to upgrade their appliances--read: PCs--post-haste.
What is a computer? As PCs evolve, blurring the lines between laptops, tablets, and whatever you want to call Google Glass, the definition becomes murky. Before long, though, maybe we'll be able to say that a computer is conclusively not a mere appliance.