The PC: August 12, 1981 — May 26, 2010. RIP

On May 26, Apple Inc.‘s (NASDAQ: AAPL) market capitalization stood at US$223 billion . That took it, for the first time, higher than Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) , which had a market cap of US$219.3 billion. Apple, not Microsoft, not Google, was at the top of the technology business mountain. And that marked the end of an era: The PC is no longer the center of the computing universe.

The PC: August 12, 1981 — May 26, 2010. RIP

The powerhouse of the computing revolution was born when IBM released the first IBM PC in August 1981. It died when Apple took the market lead from Microsoft.

Yes, of course, there were PCs before the IBM PC. I used Zilog Z-80-based microcomputers running CP/M back in the late ’70s. But it was the IBM PC that moved PCs from things that only computer fans would use to essential parts of most business offices.

And there will still be PCs years from now. You might scoff at my proclamation about the PC’s demise, but the fact that Windows-based PCs still outsell Macs by a ratio of about 24 to 1 — PC sales of 65 million vs. 3.1 million Macs in the latest quarter — is really quite irrelevant. This isn’t a matter of Macs finally outselling Windows or Linux -based PCs. That’s never going to happen.

What has happened, though, is that Apple has earned its billions and the respect of stock-buyers by switching its focus from desktop and laptops to tablets and mobile devices. Just as the rise of the PC spelled the eventual decline, and sometimes demise, of such mainframe and midrange computer companies as DEC, Honeywell and Unisys, the rise of devices with built-in computing power and high-speed networking points the way to the fall of the PC-centric companies.

It’s not that Macs will replace Windows-based PCs. It’s that with everything we use — phones, mobile entertainment devices, cars — having computing built into them, the PC is now officially on the skids. Apple realized that fact before anyone else, and that’s why the iPod, iPhone and now the iPad are raking in billions for the company.

Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), with its Linux-based Android mobile device, is also gaining traction in this field. And unlike Apple, which for some reason never really backed its Apple TV platform, Google, with its Google TV initiative, also gets that the TV too can be turned into yet another center of computing activity. Google has another advantage over Apple in that it has long been working on software-as-a-service programs such as Google Docs. Tools like Google Docs have a role to play in the end of the PC’s dominance because they offer essentially all their capability whether you’re running them on a PC with 8GB of RAM or on an Android phone with 256MB of RAM.

No, PCs aren’t going to disappear. But, then, neither did midrange computers or mainframes. IBM will be happy to sell you an iSeries or zSeries computer today. What did happen was that the PC became the way that the vast majority of people accessed computing power. The rise of Apple to the top symbolizes the switchover from PCs to “smart” devices of all sorts .

It bodes badly for Microsoft, which fared better than any other company with the rise of the PC, that its smartphone and entertainment device efforts have come to so little. What’s even worse for Microsoft in the long run is that Ballmer hasn’t adapted to the sea change. For example, when Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft’s Entertainment and Devices division, retired , Ballmer said he wouldn’t be replaced. Instead, the heads of the mobile communications business and the interactive entertainment business, who are in charge of Windows Phone 7, Xbox, Zune and Project Natal, Microsoft’s new gaming effort, will report directly to Ballmer. Instead of trying to revitalize these divisions, Microsoft is placing them on the back burner. Bad move.

In the future, we’re going to be doing more and more of our work and play on tablets and other handheld devices. We’re going to expect our cars to have not just GPS, but full-time, broadband Internet access via 4G technologies like WiMAX and LTE (Long Term Evolution). When we turn on our TVs, we’re going to be ticked off if we can’t access not just our cable channels, but video content from Hulu, YouTube and a thousand other Internet-based video sites.

There will be room left for the PC. But as the years roll by, we’re going to see that as computing becomes universal in every electronic device we use every day, the PC, and the companies that tied their future to it exclusively will slowly but surely erode in importance.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection — and we liked it! He can be reached at [email protected] .

Computerworld (US)

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