The web has been flooded recently by analyses, forecasts, and news stories that detail the impending end of the desktop PC. In the eyes of most IT analysts the desktop has become obsolete and is steadily being replaced by new and more desirable alternatives. While it was once king of all things digital, they believe that nowadays its market is clearly being eroded and there is no turning back. Therefore doom and gloom abound, and the desktop has already been placed by most analysts in a well lit tomb for all to see. But is that really the case? Who are the newcomers and what do they bring to the table? Can the desktop PC, former king of all things digital defend his crown, or are his days numbered? Read on…
It seems that the greatest threat faced by the desktop PC today comes from the host of mobile devices aiming to take its place. Laptops, netbooks, tablets, smartphones, and their many hybrids, all claim a stake in what used to be the sole dominion of the desktop. Together they form a tidal wave of change that is slowly rising and threatening to wipe the desktop PC away.
Their greatest advantage in the ongoing fight is very obvious. These devices are all highly portable. With the clear exception of large screen ‘desktop replacement’ laptops, the existence of which never fails to amaze me in terms of sheer uselessness. When coupled with ever increasing levels of performance, their portability, relative ease of use, and, for the most part, excellent aesthetics, start becoming relatively compelling reasons for choosing them over the desktop. Their promise is to give the user the ability to perform almost any task anytime and anywhere, and on top of that, look good while doing it. A lot of people are buying into that promise lately, and in so doing many argue that they are slowly killing the desktop PC.
But is the threat credible? Is the mobile mob really the danger it’s cracked up to be? At least two things pop up under scrutiny. The first is that the new levels of performance gained by mobile devices eat away at their greatest advantage by greatly diminishing battery life, and with it, portability. Many laptop users forget that for a lot of the day their machines are underclocked and over-expensive desktops, slowly gulping away at the power they are being fed through the office wall socket. Much in the same way, if you really want your smartphone to last you the whole day, you need to be careful of just how much you browse, just how much you play, just how much you listen, and you must never ever let it connect to the web whenever it feels like it. If you do, you might end up with a brick and no way to get the call that connects you to your loved ones or the next big deal. One notable exception to these rules seems to be the iPhone 5, but one good apple does not make for a healthy tree.
Tablets are undoubtedly useful devices, with much better performance in terms of battery life, but their very nature makes them less able to perform many of the tasks associated with a PC. Think about how much battery life is diminished by heavy computing tasks, or imagine having to send 50 emails from a tablet, I bet you’ll be reaching for a keyboard pretty fast. Hybrids, such as the Asus Eee Pad Transformer Prime, promise the best of both worlds, massively increasing battery life via a second battery in the dock, and providing a keyboard at the same time. But to get all that, you have to lug the dock around as well, intrinsically defeating the purpose of a tablet by transforming it into a small laptop. So, overall, the idea of using mobile devices to satisfy all your computational needs is hogwash. That is the very reason for which there are so many categories of mobile device. No one mobile device can replace the desktop PC because all of them are tied to lite workloads, and none of them can provide the full spectrum of functionality given by a desktop. Even combinations of mobile devices, although they may get you closer, will not be able to perform all of the tasks a desktop PC can, as well, as fast, or as long. This brings us to the second point.
Mobile devices have inherently short life cycles. This is the major price for all that portability. Their small size and rigid shells leave no room for hardware upgrades, overclocking can only be achieved on laptops, and even then with generally poor results due to thermal restraints, while software updates are often at the mercy of sometimes overbearing manufacturers. If you add the fact that the all important aesthetics tend to deteriorate over time, the end result is that mobile devices need to be replaced on a regular basis. This is therefore neither the cheapest, most powerful, nor most environmentally friendly way of fulfilling your computational needs.* Case in point: the Samsung Galaxy S3 was released in May, now, only six months later, there’s already serious discussion about how the S4 is going to look in terms of specs. This probably means that the Galaxy S3 will have a life cycle of less than a year for early adopters. Keeping this in mind, it then becomes obvious that the mobile market has to be large simply because the average user will replace smartphones or tablets two or three times before upgrading even one component in the desktop PC. This is simply because the desktop will perform better for a longer time. Therefore, a growing mobile market does not necessarily mean a deflating PC market, there might be no relation between the two.
Indeed, it seems that new mobile devices have expanded and created new markets. Many users have a smartphone and a PC, some add a tablet for more reading or gaming power on the go. But there are no stories of users abandoning their desktop PC in favor of one or more mobile devices. What can, and probably does happen however, is that some lite users will have their computational needs met by one or more of these devices. Someone who would have bought a desktop some six or seven years ago simply to be able to chat with friends and play Solitaire, can have those needs fulfilled by any number of current mobile devices. I daresay however that the market share represented by such users is not enough to reflect the changes in the current PC market. Instead I believe there may be some other underlying causes to these developments. But more on that later, for now let’s take a look at the other two factions out there.
*To combat any criticisms, I know that by and large desktop PCs eat a lot more energy than mobile devices. But that is not the point. Energy itself is not a finite resource, the means of getting it are. So, as we move to ever more environmentally friendly and abundant ways of acquiring our energy, the idea of energy consumption should start to lose the negative connotation is has lately gained. Manufacturing materials are an entirely different matter. The reality that you need to replace your mobile device much sooner than you need to replace any component of your desktop PC means that you are in fact consuming more resources when buying anything mobile. Some of these resources are very precious because they are scarce, others are in fact rather dangerous stuff that could damage the environment, so, in the grand scheme of things, the less devices you replace and the more you upgrade, the better your actions are for the environment.