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Friday, 15 January 2016 13:47

I don’t care about the shrinking desktop PC market – nor should you

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I love the way doom and gloom mongers continue to heap crap on ‘Wintel’ citing declining PC market stats as evidence that Apple had it right all along – or some other thinly disguised, hateful slag at Microsoft.

iTWire’s Peter Dinham recently wrote about the PC shipment decline. The source — a Gartner report — inferred that PC makers should be slitting their collective wrists. I put it to you that such reports are merely using semantics and euphemisms. The clear, indisputable facts are that the terms desktop (mini-tower etc.) and PC (personal computer) are less and less relevant to computing today than ever before.

There are numerous alternative desktop devices, including smartphones, tablets, hybrids, four-in-ones, notebooks, micro-desktops, thin clients, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, smart devices, wearables, and more – we simply don’t need a desktop as much more. In fact, the desktop term is anachronistic – all these devices are personal computers.

There are numerous "personal computing" environments including Windows, OS X, iOS, Android, Chrome, thin clients, Linux and more. I will ignore servers for this article.

Desktops reached their peak in the mid-2000s – when pretty well everyone needed a device to connect to the burgeoning internet and corporates gave one to every staff member, from cleaners to CEOs. Wintel desktops were low-cost, extremely easy to make (the white-box market thrived), easy to upgrade, and repair. Office and Windows XP (released May/August 2001) offered the closest thing to a homogenised computing environment that everyone from students to workers could use.

I am not ignoring Mac – or specifically iMacs as they were then called – as they were really desktop computers using a different operating system, albeit that many also used Intel processors, and Microsoft’s Office for Mac, again illustrating the need for a standardised operating environment (SOE).

Fast forward to today and it is clear that we don’t want to be ‘desk-bound’ with a desktop. It is also clear that we want to be able to work/study/play anywhere, anytime so devices have had to become mobile and be always connected. But it is also clear that we still want an SOE or at least something that looks like it – via a web browser, app, or program.

Where is personal computing heading?

To understand we need to look to personal computing now.

Battery powered, ARM based, content consumption devices

Smartphones – 4-6” screens – have become the primary content consumption device for many. ARM processors own that market because they have relevant computing power and battery profiles.

In just seven short years we have gone from a 3.5”, 1st generation iPhone to the immensely more capable iPhone 6S Plus, Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ and Microsoft Lumia 950XL. Ironically these are just evolutions, not revolutions of the original smartphone concept – internet connectivity in your pocket.

In just a few short years the smartphone market has become saturated – growth has stalled and it's now about replacement cycles. Importantly for many, it has become the primary internet (email, entertainment and communications) device and these people don’t need the added functionality of a tablet or desktop.

Tablets – 8-12” screens – are still primarily content consumption devices but, with the addition of optional keyboards, are a little better at content creation although I challenge anyone to be as productive on a tablet as they can be on a ‘desktop’.

In just five years we have gone from the original iPad 9.7” to the 12.9” iPad Pro and seen the introduction of Samsung’s 10” Galaxy Tab S, S2 – and every permutation in between. Again each iteration is slightly better than the last.

But this market is not thriving – it is in steep decline as Hybrids take over.

New category – x86 Hybrid Tablet or two-in-one.

I am going to ignore the Surface RT ARM tablet – Microsoft’s ‘"Ballmerised", ill-fated, ill-conceived, and ill-intentioned attempt to knock off the iPad.

The real ‘new category’ is the Surface – a full-fat, Windows x86, tablet that could also be a notebook/desktop replacement, released in February 2013, just three years ago.

Surface Pro is up to a 12.8” version 4, there is now a 13.5” Surface Book (still a hybrid) and an amazingly successful Intel Atom-based 10.8” Surface 3 that is taking massive sales from ARM tablets.

Microsoft got it absolutely right with the Surface formula and it still surprises me that Apple has not made a tablet version of the Mac – sorry, I forgot that OS X is not, and will never be, a touch operating system.

HP, Dell, Toshiba, Acer, Asus, Samsung, and others are all making Surface form factor devices and this category will take over at the expense of notebooks and desktops – even Android or iOS-based tablets. Mind you, this category started with light-weight detachable keyboards and now we are seeing full metal keyboards and even graphics processors being offered as options.

This is where the near future of computing lies and from where the most innovation will come.

Notebooks, clamshell, four-in-one – Windows, OS X, Chrome, etc.

The notebook is not dead but everyone who owns one covets a hybrid device – not vice versa.

Notebooks have one distinct advantage – they are cheaper to make and can use a range of x86 processors catering to different power and heat loads. Notebooks start well under $500 and the form factor suits all those who do not need the ultra-portability of a Hybrid.

Desktops (Windows, OSX and Linux)

No one would really bemoan the demise of desktops as long as notebooks, micro-desktops and other categories slip down the price scale.

The growth here is in moving to all-in-ones – like Apple's Mac has traditionally been. HP’s new Curved All-in-one for example, is innovation in this space.

Desktops will be around for a long while. Their sheer size allows for greater cooling, more power and go fast add-ons like graphics cards for gamers and professional users – but for the typical consumer or enterprise user, an x86 Hybrid or Notebook will do.

The game changer here may be Microsoft’s Continuum but my take is that this is merely an interim measure until Intel has a suitable x86 mobile device processor that can run the full version of Windows.

A rose by any other name (would still smell like a rose)

Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella realised that the world has changed and it's now about (paraphrased) mobile first and cloud first. It is now about the experience on each device – not the device itself. Microsoft’s Office was the first to become OS-agnostic, and I suspect its Universal Apps approach will open that door further. It has the lion's share of x86 operating systems and productivity software for all major operating systems.

Intel has been seen as a major casualty of the ARMs race. In part that is true, but they now make ARM processors as well, and have about 98% of the x86 market so they are smiling. Intel may have lost volume in traditional "Pentium" style desktop processors but its x86 Atom, ULV (Ultra Low Voltage), and 6th generation Skylake are going gangbusters. With the IoT, they are poised to achieve greater things. And their memory division is doing nicely too.

OEMs like Acer, HP, Dell, Lenovo, Toshiba, Samsung et al have long gotten over the desktop era and now make a range of devices to cover most ‘personal computing’ markets.

It is not that desktops are declining and hence the sky is falling. It is that personal computing is evolving and everyone is doing very nicely, thank you.

Note to IDC, Gartner, Forrester, Kantar, and the many analysts that take umbrage with this – it is time to revisit your metrics and bring them into the real world. It is personal computing devices and form factors that count – not individual component makers, operating systems or brands.

Note to Microsoft, Google, Apple, and open source proponents – we, the people, could not care less what OS we run, as long as it does what we want. I live in hope that a universal OS and some Universal apps will emerge sooner rather than later!

But, on a sobering note, competition is healthy and all this world domination stuff is important as it drives competition on to more and better devices.

The future of computing is about whatever form factor does it for you – implanted, wearable, virtual and augmented reality, smartphone as a PC. Who knows?

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw [email protected]  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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