The tech journalism echo chamber often feels like a high school cafeteria where disappointing sales news gets passed around and amplified like gossip from the popular kids' table. Last week, the grapevine was buzzing with commentary about a massive decline in desktop and laptop sales. Predictably, pundits repeated the popular mantra that "The PC is dying," a piece of common wisdom that's become a dangerously self-fulfilling prophecy.
As a user of technology and the Internet, you should be very concerned, because the "dead PC" meme has the potential to limit the tools you can use to work and play. Yes, sales are down, but let's not confuse a maturing market with a declining platform.
Davey Alba recently wrote an article for Wired entitled "The Death of the PC Has Not Been Greatly Exaggerated," in which she posits that computers are now the secondary devices and have been for some time now. "With mobile, the question is, what else can we do with it?,” she asks. “With PCs, the question is, what are they still good for?"
However, reports show that media consumption on the PC is growing and is still far ahead of phones for certain content types. Common sense also dictates that a full-fledged computer is still the best or only way to perform certain key functions.
Better for Content Creation
PCs are still the preferred platform for a wide array of tasks that don't work well on a tiny screen with a limited operating system, particularly anything involving content creation. I dare you to try writing an email much longer than two paragraphs on a phone. By the same token, try editing a full-length video, creating a detailed spreadsheet or preparing a presentation.
Even though they have smartphones in their pockets, people are still using their existing PCs for a lot of online tasks. StatCounter claims that, as of March 2014, 66.35 percent of global Internet traffic occurs on desktops or laptops. In a recent report, analytics firm comScore noted that digital-media consumption on the desktop continues to be in an upswing, though phone and tablet usage is growing even faster.
"While most of the growth in digital-media consumption over the past four years has occurred on smartphones (up 394 percent) and tablets (up 1,721 percent), these mobile platforms are not eating into aggregate time spent on desktop, which has still grown 37 percent over this time period," the report said. "The digital-media pie continues to get bigger, and Americans engage with screens during more occasions throughout the day than ever before."
The firm also noted that certain online activities are performed much more often on PCs than on phones. The company claims that 87 percent of all e-commerce dollars are spent on computers and 70 percent of business and finance content is consumed on PCs. According to email marketing firm Adestra, 53 percent of all messages are still opened on the desktop (33 percent in clients and 20 percent via webmail). Can you blame people for not wanting to make a major purchase or plan their investments on a tiny screen with a typo-prone keyboard?
There's no doubt that sales numbers back up Alba's position. Research firm IDC recently reported an 11.8 percent drop in worldwide PC shipments year over year, though that number was only 3.3 percent for the United States. There are several possible reasons for the sudden drop, including anticipation for Windows 10 and large businesses being in between their upgrade cycles. However, the best reason for the PC sales decline over time is not that people don't want PCs, but that they don't see a compelling reason to upgrade from older devices.
Despite some of the great new laptops and desktops hitting the market in the past couple of years, many consumers don't see an adequate reason to fix what isn't broken. A 5-year-old PC can run Windows 10, along with all the latest apps that aren't graphically intensive games or 3D-animation suites.
There are plenty of reasons to upgrade, though. Today, you can get a 2-in-1 that turns into a tablet, an extremely light notebook or a giant all-in-one desktop that folds into a tabletop PC. However, according to NPD, the average Windows laptop price is just $442 while the average desktop goes for $482, and computers with some of the best new features cost a lot more than that. You can get a 2-in-1 or Core i5-powered notebook in that price range, but I challenge you to find a system with really compelling features such as an SSD, a full-HD display, a Core i5 or Core M CPU, and 8+ hours of endurance for anywhere near that.
Phones Are Cheap, Turn Over Quickly
While a 5-year-old PC is probably still in good working order, a 2-year-old phone is ready for the recycle bin. Technology in the phone market is advancing much more quickly. Your 2013-era phone had a much worse camera, uglier screen and lower-speed processor than today's flagship devices. Even worse, while old PCs can still run the latest versions of Windows and Mac OS X, most phones stop getting updates after just a couple of years. After 24 months, your phone is also probably scratched up and suffering from a worn battery.
If you're on a two-year-contract, you can get a high-end phone for $199 or less. If you get a no-contract plan that breaks the retail price into monthly payments, you'll be paying around $25 a month for the latest and greatest hardware. You can even get an unlocked phone for under $100, if you're willing to compromise on quality and features in a big way.
Why 'PCs Are Dead' Is Dangerous
Even though people won't stop using (or buying) computers any time soon, the widespread but incorrect belief that computers are on the way out has serious implications. Corporate executives, investors and developers read the same news stories as everyone else and change their plans accordingly. While the PC space needs more innovation and better apps, many companies that make software and publish Web tools will transition even more of their resources to mobile. Websites that today offer more content on the page for desktop could end up getting stripped down for all users, on the belief that phone screens are the only ones that matter.
"The challenge the PC has is that it isn't attracting much in the way of apps that exploit its capabilities and resonate with a broad audience," said Ross Rubin of Recticle Research.
News of the form factor's demise certainly won't help.
As investors jump on the anti -PC bandwagon, companies that make computer hardware will be under increased pressure to produce fewer and lower-quality products. Consumers will see fewer innovations like the Microsoft Surface and Lenovo Yoga, and more commodity laptops in their place.
A New Digital Divide
In many developing countries, families who have never been able to afford a PC are now buying smartphones. While it's great that more people have access to the Internet, the rise of mobile-only users fosters a new digital divide, between those who create and those who consume.
"The PC has become a more immersive and optimized platform for work and play, just as the TV has for video," Rubin said.
The future belongs to those who can code and build new things with technology, all tasks that require the power of a PC. Let's hope the PC ecosystem remains strong for them.
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