The PC as you know it is obsolete. So sayeth Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who took the stage at the Wall Street Journal’s D8 conference in June to talk about what he sees as the coming “post-PC era.”
“When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks,” Jobs explained. “But as people moved more toward urban centers, people started to get into cars. I think PCs are going to be like trucks. Less people will need them.” What they will want instead, according to Jobs, are iPads — and devices like them — which do away with traditional desktop PC metaphors in favor of more intuitive, touch-based experiences.
Depending on whom you ask, the iPad will save journalism, rescue the book publishing business, transform the movie industry, change the way we communicate, and make the perfect omelet. But there are plenty of reasons to suspect that at least some of these predictions will prove overly optimistic. Even more dubious is the idea that the iPad signals a true sea change in computing. Here are 10 reasons why we think the rumors of the PC’s death may be greatly exaggerated.
1. Tablet computing: Déjà vu all over again
“People laugh at me when I say [the iPad] is magical,” Steve Jobs told the audience at the D8 conference. Should he be surprised? While Jobs might see Apple’s latest product as revolutionary, to others it’s just history repeating itself.
Apple’s initial foray into handheld devices came in 1993, when it shipped the first Newton PDAs. But Newton was the brainchild of Apple’s then-CEO John Scully, not Jobs. In classic Apple “not invented here” fashion, Jobs canceled Newton shortly after returning to the company in 1998. For nearly a decade, he repeatedly denied any plans to produce a new handheld — that is, until the iPhone.
Meanwhile, Microsoft and its hardware partners struggled to bridge the gap between PDAs and laptops, but Windows tablets never caught on with consumers. They were too big for a pocket, too heavy for a purse, too powerful and complex for simple applications like note-taking and managing contacts, too limited for serious computing, and too expensive to sell as supplementary devices. The iPad and its forthcoming clones address some of these concerns, but demand for tablets remains unclear.
Building demand will be a challenge, says Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps, who thinks the iPad isn’t a “post-PC” device at all. “The iPad is a new kind of PC,” she writes. “It ushers in a new era of Curated Computing — a mode of computing in which choice is constrained to deliver more relevant, less complex experiences.”
That’s a dubious-sounding distinction. And if customers have to give up choice to use a new computing device, it certainly would be nice if it fit in their pockets and let them make phone calls.
2. Demand for PCs is growing, not shrinking
Jobs’ argument that fewer people will need PCs in the near future falls flat when you look at the numbers. Sales of desktop PCs, laptops, and servers slumped during the economic recession, but 2010 figures show all three categories on the rebound.
It’s too early to predict just how good a year PC vendors will have, but analysts are uniformly optimistic. IDC expects worldwide PC sales to grow by almost 20 per cent in 2010, while Gartner puts the figure at 22 per cent. Meanwhile, market research firm The NPD Group has reported gains of 30 per cent year-over-year in early returns.
Even more astounding, many of these sales are going to desktop PCs, rather than laptops — a category many analysts had left for dead. According to Stephen Baker, NPD’s vice president of industry analysis, desktop PC revenue has actually grown faster than notebook revenue in some recent months.
“The resurgent desktop market is great news for the OEMs, especially Dell and HP,” Baker writes, “as at least some of the rebirth is the result of consumers’ need for more powerful, more capable family PCs.”
That’s one need the iPad and similar devices won’t be able to fill.
3. Hype is not reality
Remember the Segway? If you believed the early hype, Dean Kamen’s novel electric personal scooter would revolutionize the transportation industry. Cars themselves would soon be obsolete.
At that point, Steve Jobs was particularly effusive, telling Time magazine that the Segway would be “as big a deal as the PC.” Jobs reportedly told Kamen, “If enough people see this machine, you won’t have to convince them to architect cities around it; it’ll just happen.”
But according to journalist Steve Kemper, behind the scenes Jobs was far less optimistic.
“I think it sucks,” Jobs reportedly said of an early Segway prototype. “Its shape is not innovative, it’s not elegant, it doesn’t feel anthropomorphic.” These were grave sins to the Apple CEO, who suggested Kamen consult a product design firm.
In hindsight, the Segway fell victim to the very issues Jobs, Kamen, and others discussed prior to its launch: Not only was it a hard sell to consumers given its unfamiliar design and high price point, but regulatory pressures literally forced it off the road in many cities.
Mind you, none of this is to say Jobs doesn’t believe his new baby, the iPad, has a bright future, but it’s wise to take Jobs, a self-confessed “big bang guy,” with a grain of salt. For all his talk about saving newspapers, revolutionizing media, and transforming computing, we’re a long way from an iPad in every home. TVs, Blu-ray players, phones, MP3 players, and plain old PCs wield a lot of influence, and they’ll continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
4. PCs are more cost effective
When netbooks were first introduced, PC makers touted the unique characteristics of what they claimed was an entirely new category of computing device. In hindsight, however, netbooks had one characteristic that appealed to consumers more than any other: They were cheap.
Since then, pricing pressure from netbooks has driven the cost of laptops down. According to The NPD Group, the average selling prices of laptops were lower than those of desktop PCs in three out of the first four months of 2010 — an about-face from the days when customers paid a premium for mobility. At this writing, both Dell and HP are offering laptops with 15-inch screens and generous memory and hard disk space for around $380.
By comparison, the cheapest iPad is $499. It has a 9.7-inch screen, 16GB of solid-state storage, and no physical keyboard. It doesn’t run Windows or Mac OS X, which means it doesn’t support applications designed for either platform. You can browse the Web on it, but it doesn’t support sites designed with Adobe Flash or other plug-ins. If this is the next stage of computing, we’re taking a step backward.
Far more likely, the iPad will be a “post-PC” device in just one sense: By the time you buy one, you’ll probably already own a PC.
5. Mobile devices aren’t versatile
In his notorious “Thoughts on Flash” letter, Steve Jobs criticized Adobe’s Flash technology as being “created during the PC era,” making it a relic of the past. He offered Flash “rollovers” as one example of UI design that was incompatible with the iPad’s touch-interaction model.
But customers are likely to see things the opposite way: The iPad does a poor job of supporting the websites, applications, and infrastructure we have right now, and it won’t do a good job until everybody re-engineers their sites and applications to support it. That means replacing rollovers with touch-to-click behaviors, for one thing, and throwing out Flash and similar add-on technologies altogether. Only the most credulous Apple fans will be holding their breaths.
Furthermore, Jobs’ post-PC model means getting used to an onscreen, virtual keyboard, rather than the mechanical kind, and that will be a hard sell for touch-typists. Jobs told the D8 audience, “When I am going to write that 35-page analyst report I am going to want my Bluetooth keyboard. That’s one per cent of the time.” Not everyone has it so lucky.
And people connect more to their PCs than just keyboards. They use game controllers, tablets, webcams, remote controls, and more. If moving into the post-PC era means giving up all of these options, most of us will stay where we are.
6. Mobile devices don’t cater to businesses
As much as the tech industry loves to celebrate its “road warriors,” in truth mobile business users have been given surprisingly short shrift. While much is made of the ability to play YouTube videos on mobile phones, for example, the needs of enterprise IT departments are barely even paid lip service.
Security tops the list of those needs. Fingerprint readers, onboard data encryption, and other hardware-based security features, now common on laptops, have yet to be incorporated in smartphones and other “post-PC” devices. Mobile users need to be able to access VPNs and navigate corporate networks, but with the possible exception of BlackBerry handsets, few devices support the kind of centrally managed policy control that Windows PCs do. Nor do they allow centralized management of OS patches and security updates, which is sure to be a problem as cyber criminals begin targeting mobile browsers.
Apple says it has added more business-oriented features to iOS 4, the latest release of its iPhone and iPad operating system, but these are just baby steps. As of this writing, many of these capabilities are half-implemented, with management tools due later in the year.
That’s no way to spark a computing revolution. The NPD Group expects IT purchasing to be strong in 2010, first among small and midsize businesses and later in enterprises. If Apple and other device vendors want to push the industry beyond the PC, they’ll need to do a better job of catering to this market first.
7. Cloud services aren’t reliable enough
Computing with low-powered tablets and handsets inevitably means offloading some processing to the cloud. That’s true of the iPad and especially Google’s forthcoming Chrome OS devices, which will rely entirely on Web-based services to function. But if Apple and Google expect customers to ditch their PCs for these devices, the accompanying services better be rock-solid.
Unfortunately, cloud computing’s track record to date has hardly been flawless. For all its vaunted data center prowess, Google has struggled to meet performance demand in the business version of its App Engine cloud computing platform, where uptime is critical. Its public services, such as Gmail, have also suffered outages. And Google is not alone; periodic outages at Salesforce.com, the leading SaaS vendor, have elicited many a grumble from its customers, and the same is true of just about every service out there.
Outages are particularly painful for users of mobile devices. An outage on Research in Motion’s BlackBerry network in 2008 disrupted service for customers across all of North America — including, presumably, a campaigning Barack Obama — even though the company had been criticized for a similar outage the year before. Worst of all, however, was Microsoft’s bungling of Danger’s cloud-based Sidekick mobile platform, which erased undisclosed amounts of users’ stored data. Before customers are willing to give up their PCs completely, cloud service providers must do a lot better.
8. Cloud computing won’t work for everything
AMD and Intel haven’t exactly given up developing processors for desktop PCs and laptops, and with good reason. Sure, low-wattage chip designs such as ARM and Intel’s Atom have become increasingly powerful, but there’s still plenty of demand for multicore chips with high clock speeds.
Similarly, new PCs ship with ever more onboard RAM, and multiterabyte hard drives are becoming mainstream. If cloud computing will make the desktop obsolete, why hasn’t the PC hardware arms race slowed?
The simple fact is that typical PC users still rely on local horsepower for many of their computing workloads. Consider the ongoing popularity of PC gaming: Even the most network-centric multiplayer online games rely heavily on thick client software to render their graphics. As a result, gamers remain the most avid purchasers of hardware upgrades, and they’re sure to look askance at any lightweight “media device” that fails to deliver the goods.
Gamers aren’t alone. Any application that pushes a lot of data becomes extremely inefficient when an Internet connection is the bottleneck. From photo editing to 3-D imaging to complex data analysis, there are plenty of tasks that simply work better on a PC. Indeed, even Gartner now advises businesses to use caution when evaluating cloud-based SaaS (software as a service), saying it “will have a role in the future of IT, but not the dominant future that was first thought.” If the world’s biggest software companies can’t get a Web-based office suite right, good luck replacing Photoshop — and that goes double if you shut out technologies such as Flash and Java, as Apple has done with the iPad.
9. Desktop and mobile operating systems don’t mix
Designing a post-PC device is something of a tightrope act. It has to support typical PC use cases, but it can’t just be a PC wedged into a funky form factor.
“[Microsoft’s] tablet was based on a PC,” Steve Jobs told the audience at the D8 Conference. “It had the battery life, the weight, it needed a cursor like a PC. But the minute you throw a stylus out, you have the precision of a finger, you can’t use a PC OS. You have to create it from scratch.”
But what do you include in a post-PC OS and what do you leave out? Perhaps the most infamous example of a mobile OS that tried to do too much is Windows Mobile, which even Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has described as a disappointment.
In an effort to regain market share, Microsoft is now readying no fewer than five new operating systems for smartphones and mobile devices. That’s sure to confuse consumers, but it underscores the difficulty of coming up with a one-size-fits-all platform for mobile computing.
The larger problem is that when you start from scratch, as Apple has done with the iPad, you force customers to do so, too. Considering that Apple’s various incarnations of Mac OS were never able to win significant market share away from Windows, the odds that iOS will succeed this time seem long indeed.
10. PCs are familiar
The bottom line is that PCs were designed to model things that people did already, and they still do a good job of it. PCs have keyboards, just like the typewriters that preceded them. The WYSIWYG application model has become the norm; its output resembles printed paper. GUI interfaces have evolved to resemble everyday objects. The mouse-and-cursor model may be an inadequate substitute for hands-on controls, but it performs its function reasonably well.
Moreover, most of us gain our first exposure to computing in school, where we regularly write long papers, crunch numbers, plot graphs, and print out reports — all activities best suited to PCs. As long as users are trained to reach for PCs early in their education and their careers, they’re likely to continue to do so throughout their lives.
Will post-PC devices begin to edge out PCs as time goes on? Perhaps, but not if they merely replace PCs for the same tasks we do now. For a true computing revolution to occur, post-PC devices will have to offer use cases that were never possible with traditional desktop and laptop computers.
Far more likely is that we’re entering a “PC plus” era, one in which traditional PCs are supplemented by a range of smartphones, tablets, and other devices. But that’s OK — we still see trucks on the road, too.