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The PC was supposed to die a decade ago. Instead, this happened


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By Ed Bott for The Ed Bott Report  2010s: The Decade in Review


Back on January 27, 2010, a very Big Thinker declared the PC dead. A decade later, the PC is very much alive, although a time traveler from 2010 might not recognize it. Here's how this endangered species evolved and survived.




Not all that long ago, tech pundits were convinced that by 2020 the personal computer as we know it would be extinct. You can even mark the date and time of the PC's death: January 27, 2010, at 10:00 A.M. Pacific Time, when Steve Jobs stepped onto a San Francisco stage to unveil the iPad. The precise moment was documented by noted Big Thinker Nicholas Carr in The New Republic with this memorable headline: "The PC Officially Died Today."


A few months later, CNN Money added their own obituary, complete with charts and graphs: "The end of the desktop PC (seriously)." 


Fast-forward to April 2013, when Forbes was still looking for a pulse: "The Death of the PC Has Not Been Exaggerated." At the midpoint of the decade


Wired was using the same clichéd headline (based on the most famous thing Mark Twain never said) but qualifying it with a wobbly adverb: "The Death of the PC Has Not Been Greatly Exaggerated."


And by 2017 The Inquirer, never one to shrink from a controversial topic, had conceded that the patient was apparently alive and well: "The PC still isn't dead and the market is 'stabilising'," they wrote.


And so, here we are, a full decade after the PC's untimely death, and the industry is still selling more than a quarter-billion-with-a-B personal computers every year. Which is pretty good for an industry that has been living on borrowed time for ten years.


Maybe the reason the PC industry hasn't suffered a mass extinction event yet is because they adapted, and because those competing platforms weren't able to take over every PC-centric task.

So what's different as we approach 2020? To get a proper before-and-after picture, I climbed into the Wayback Machine and traveled back to 2010.


The competitive landscape


You didn't have to be a Big Thinker with a book contract to see the beginnings of a Pretty Big Trend in 2010. Increasingly powerful mobile devices made it possible for people to quickly complete a variety of tasks that used to require a PC. That tech transition drained away much of the demand for PCs from consumers, although it made only the slightest dent on business demand.


The first casualty was the netbook, a category of cheap PCs that used underpowered Atom processors and smaller screens than you'd typically find on an entry-level laptop, on the theory that mere consumers wouldn't notice the difference.


Spoiler: Consumers noticed the difference. Netbooks were slow and ugly and cheap, serving more as a reminder that you could get a real notebook for maybe $100 more. The category was gone almost before anyone noticed that it was fading.

Meanwhile, PC makers realized that at least two groups of customers were willing to pay a premium for a PC: business buyers and gamers. And so, as we shall see, OEMs began investing heavily in those two categories.

The hardware

Desktop PC configurations (conventional towers and small form factor devices) haven't changed much in the past decade, but portable PCs sure have. For a quick refresher course on what the laptop market looked like back in 2010, you don't need to borrow my Wayback Machine. Just read this excellent round-up of the best notebooks of 2010, as selected by Laptop Magazine editor Mark Spoonauer.


Here's what I noticed when I compared the class of 2010 to PC technology from a decade later.


They're thinner and lighter. The device that every PC manufacturer has aimed to emulate over the past decade is, without question, Apple's MacBook Air. The Laptop crew, in fact, designated it as their "Breakthrough Device" for 2010, calling the 2.3-pound and 2.9-pound devices "ridiculously light." Today, most high-end Windows PCs can meet or beat those specs, with the physical limitations of the battery and keyboard preventing them from getting much smaller or lighter. At least they don't need optical drives anymore.




The original MacBook Air defined the thin-and-light-laptop category. This 2019 model is no longer so distinctive.



Touchscreens and 2-in-1s are common. Back in 2010, Microsoft was just beginning to show off its touch-enabled Windows 7 PCs, but they were quickly overshadowed by the iPad launch. By 2015, the category had solidified into a wide range of shape-shifting 2-in-1 devices. Today, touchscreens are common on Windows laptops but nonexistent on Apple's MacBook lines.


Solid state storage is standard. Conventional spinning disk media were all the rage in 2010, with reviewers praising devices that offered fast 7200 RPM hard drives. SSDs became an expensive option over the next few years and have dropped in price dramatically since, to the point where it's difficult today to find a portable PC with a conventional hard disk.


Battery life is better. Back in 2010, battery life benchmarks of 5-6 hours were considered good, and real world performance was always less impressive. Battery technology has improved since then, as have the ability of CPUs, chipsets, and system software to manage power usage. Modern PCs routinely get double the battery life of their ancestors from a decade ago.


Ports have evolved. Looking back on those laptop designs from 2010, I was struck by just how clunky the port lineup was. Consider the Alienware M11x "gaming netbook," which promised "the graphics power of a 15-inch laptop in an 11-inch form factor." It was admittedly small, but the entire left side was taken up by ports, including separate VGA, HDMI, and DisplayPort connector, plus full-size Ethernet, USB, and IEEE 1394 ports. On today's PCs, those would be replaced by one or two USB Type-C connectors.


The software and services

A decade ago, most software was shrink-wrapped, and cloud storage was an interesting novelty. Office 365 wasn't introduced until 2011, and OneDrive was still called SkyDrive until 2014. Back in those days, average internet speeds weren't quite fast enough to make fully cloud-driven experiences practical.


Thanks to ubiquitous wireless connectivity and dramatically faster speeds, the cloud is no longer a curiosity. Likewise, web-based services are systematically eliminating the last traces of boxed software. By mid-decade, that trend was accelerating for Microsoft, arguably the most important company in the PC industry. (See "Microsoft's transition from traditional software to the cloud is picking up steam," published in 2015.)


The effect of that transformation on portable PCs is twofold. First, storage requirements have dropped significantly, with a 128 GB SSD sufficient for most midrange PCs. And second, wireless connectivity options have improved as Wi-Fi standards have evolved. And with ARM-based PCs and 5G mobile networks finally reaching the mainstream, we may see a rapid evolution in cellular connectivity soon.


The other big trend in software was the transformation of operating system upgrades, which used to be an expensive option and are now free. As I noted in this 2016 post, Apple dropped paid OS X upgrades in 2013, and Microsoft followed suit with the release of Windows 10 in 2015. The upshot is that the useful life of a PC can extend well beyond the traditional three or four years that used to represent a major new release and a major upgrade cycle.


In fact, one of the most interesting developments in the PC market is a logical extension of that trend: hardware subscriptions that replace PC ownership. Microsoft's version is called Surface All Access for Business; but Dell's PC as a Service (PCaaS) for Business is a much purer expression of the concept. Both plans allow you to lease a new PC with no upfront costs and one fixed monthly payment, then trade it for a new PC after 36 or 48 months. In Dell's case, they set everything up and securely remove data and recycle the PC at the end of the term.

The OEMs

At the beginning of the decade, just before the release of Apple's iPad, a PC was essential for consumers who wanted to do common online tasks like shopping or checking the news. But as I noted at the beginning of 2019, "the consumer market for PCs has essentially vanished" and three companies that focused primarily on business PCs took an increasingly larger share of sales and revenue: HP, Dell, and Lenovo. Companies like Toshiba and Fujitsu, which once had some of the most interesting designs around, exited the business.


The one major addition to the lineup of PC OEMs in this decade was a surprise, and also a bit of a roller coaster ride. Microsoft's reveal of the original Surface RT and Surface Pro in 2012 was a bold move. The failure of Surface RT was an expensive embarrassment. But the company's persistence and eventual success with Surface, turning it into a billion-dollar brand, was only surprising to people who haven't seen Microsoft's tenacity in other fields.


But of all the surprises the decade brought, the biggest was probably the change in Apple's fortunes. They started with the breakthrough device that defined the category, the MacBook Air. But somewhere along the line Cupertino seems to have taken its eye off the ball when it comes to the Mac. The hardware is underwhelming, the keyboards are defective, and the OS is buggy.


Maybe it wasn't the PC that died a decade ago. Maybe it was the Mac. At any rate, place your predictions on what PCs will look like in another 10 years, because it doesn't look like they'll be dying off any time soon.



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The PC refuses to die and has outlived predictions of its demise




Bottom line: The death of the PC has been predicted just as many times as the year of the Linux desktop, but none of these has come to pass. Today, almost everyone has a smartphone and a large share of users also own a tablet, but the day when we can give up PCs entirely is still nowhere in sight.

Over the last decade, many smart people have predicted the "end" and "death" of the PC, which would slowly become a rare sight when compared to the ubiquitous smartphones and tablets that would take over our digital lives.


One of the most famous predictions was that of Steve Jobs when he revealed the first generation iPad in 2010. He noted the tablet would gradually cannibalize the obsolete form factor PCs thanks to their natural, touch interface and simplicity. The thinking was that since many people don't need to do very complex tasks, a smartphone and a tablet would be enough to cover those needs.


By comparison, the PC was a bit too complicated, not quite as portable, and would become a specialized, high-powered tool that only the most demanding users would use on a daily basis. Jobs drew an analogy between digital devices and cars, explaining that PCs would be just like trucks -- still in use but not nearly as much as sedans. To be fair though, Jobs at the time was not only trying to be visionary but was upselling the audience, as he brilliantly did in most of his keynotes (see: reality distortion field).


But sometimes even smart entrepreneurs can be taken over by wishful thinking and tunnel vision. If we take Steve Jobs' prediction, he was not entirely wrong. PC sales have indeed slowed down considerably over the last decade, something that has been presented through numerous graphs and analyses.




At the same time, smartphones have been selling like hotcakes, and while there are signs the market has finally matured, people keep buying new phones, albeit a little less often than before. There are an estimated 4 billion smartphones in use today, and all manufacturers except Apple are fighting for the last 1 billion people that still use a dumb phone.


Tablets, on the other hand, enjoyed a surge in shipments for a few years after the release of the first iPad, but their momentum slowed considerably once the trend of bigger smartphones kicked in. Amazon and others have tried to flood the market with cheap Fire tablets, Apple built its more powerful iPad Pro lineup, but none of these efforts brought the demise of PCs, and they don't sell nearly as well as some would have expected.


Almost ten years have passed since Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPad on January 27, 2010. And while PC shipments have gone down over the years, there are still around 250 million of them being sold every year, which is still a solid number that doesn't quite paint the picture of a dead market. Tablets, on the other hand, never reached that scale and annual sales have been in a constant decline for years.


There are several explanations that can be attributed to this result, and not one of them will suffice on its own. Still, it's worth looking at some of the possible reasons why PCs are not only not dead, but still a thriving and diverse ecosystem of devices that serve needs that are just as varied.




At the time when the iPad landed in stores, PC manufacturers were toying with new ideas to make computers more portable. One of the failed experiments of that era was the netbook, which was supposed to be the smaller sibling of the notebook computer but ended up being much worse in almost every aspect except portability.


The first Apple MacBook Air, however, served an undeniable source of inspiration for laptop manufacturers, who wanted to emulate the thin-and-light design and battery life, which they eventually did. Nowadays, even high-end gaming laptops are relatively thin, with Razer's lineup being a notable example, and you can get decent battery life with Microsoft's Surface Laptop or Dell's XPS 13 notebook, to name a few.


Mobile devices benefit greatly from the speed of flash storage, which makes the operating system and apps snappy and doesn't have any moving parts. Apple was the first to make solid state drives standard on all of its MacBooks, and most premium alternatives from PC manufacturers today also come with fast SSDs.


Microsoft has pushed aggressively against the "post-PC era" rhetoric with marketing that tried to skew that perception towards a different view that PCs would just evolve to new form factors that are "mobile first." Bill Gates was a big proponent of the idea that computers would eventually understand the context they're in using sensors, and be able to accept various forms of input like touch, pen, keyboard, and speech recognition.


The Redmond giant pursued this vision with Windows 8 and its Surface 2-in-1s, and its many OEM partners were supposed to follow suit. However, Windows 8 was a radical divorce from the mature interface of Windows 7 and manufacturers were too slow to integrate touchscreens and pen input in their devices.


Eventually, Lenovo, Dell, HP, and others copied aspects of Microsoft's Surface family of devices and released "detachables," convertible laptops, and plenty of other devices that also support pen input. Apple has insisted it would never build a "toaster refrigerator" kind of device, but there's clearly a market for that.


Even Microsoft's biggest enemy, Google, has been pushing Chromebooks in education, which only added to the many options available on the PC market. Granted, they don't run nearly as many apps as Windows laptops, but they are low-price, low-maintenance and easier to manage, and that's why schools keep buying them.


Apple's MacBooks are still selling in millions of units per year, even after the company made several aspects of them worse. They have unreliable keyboards, minimal port configurations that often require dongles, and are notoriously difficult to repair. That said, people still can't give them up for a tablet, and they most likely never will.




The company has tried to pitch the iPad Pro as a laptop replacement, touting its speedy hardware, big screen, pen input, and by creating several ads where it explains why its tablet should be seen as a full-fledged computer. However, it's expensive, has only one port, and the reviews from people that wanted to believe Apple's promises show the iPad Pro still fails their most basic tasks.


Today, most laptops feature fewer ports than they did ten years ago, but even Apple's MacBooks feature two or four USB-C ports. Some Windows laptops still offer an assortment of ports for Ethernet, USB-A, HDMI, and SD slots, which makes them an even better proposition for people who hate the idea of buying a bunch of dongles to satisfy their connectivity requirements.


The performance of the iPad is great for light tasks, but there is a reason why there are still around 100 million Macs in use - plenty of professionals and "prosumers" use them for demanding tasks like photo manipulation, video editing, computer-aided design (CAD), and multitasking. This typically requires a lot more than can be packed inside a tablet.


After Intel introduced its Core i9 CPU lineup, Apple and other laptop manufacturers have been quick to integrate them in their premium offerings, alongside 16 or more GB of RAM and GPUs for hardware acceleration.




Even with all the advancements in ARM architecture, we still see Intel and AMD's CPUs powering many high-end machines. Microsoft's Surface Pro X is a great prosumer device, but its strong points are the 13-hour battery life and upgradeable SSD. Running something like Adobe Photoshop on it isn't ideal, while Microsoft's Office 365 suite will work just fine.


And this is even more evident with gaming workloads. Mobile gaming is very popular among casual gamers, which makes publishers like Ubisoft, EA, and Tencent - the world's largest game company by revenue - richer every year.


Still, many people want to play PC titles that offer vastly superior graphical fidelity, as well as precise mouse and keyboard input - which is especially useful in online multiplayer titles. And while the eSports phenomenon is controversial for good reasons, there's no denying that it's fuelling sales of gaming PCs and accessories. Universities around the world are starting to introduce eSports scholarships, and none of them involves gaming on tablets or smartphones.


There are an estimated 350 million iPads and 150 million Android tablets in the wild, for a total of 500 million tablets. By comparison, there are about 1.5 billion PCs in use today -- granted, many of them aren't equipped for gaming, but Steam alone has about 1 billion registered accounts, 90 million of which are active every month.




Of those 1.5 billion PCs, around 800 million run Windows 10. A significant chunk of the remaining 700 million were the subject of a poorly-received joke thrown by Apple marketing vice president Phil Schiller at a product event. He said that people using five-year-old PCs is "sad," which is ironic when you consider that people who buy Apple's MacBooks tend to keep them for quite a while longer than that.


Phil explained that an iPad would serve many of these people much better than a PC would, which may well be a true assessment. But that ignores a less-talked-about aspect of tablets - they don't last as long as a well-maintained PC, and even Apple's own estimated lifespan for its devices seems to confirm that notion.


Others, like A16z analyst Benedict Evans, have typically used numbers in a different way to make a case for the "death of PCs." One theory involves the idea of scale, and how every next-generation device eventually surpasses the last-generation device in terms of adoption, as it gradually evolves from a "toy" to a "tool".


Then there's the idea that devices are first created to fit the work that's being done on them, then the work changes to fit the tools, after which the cycle repeats. This is actually an interesting take on how software is what reshapes how we use devices, and what can really be done with different form factors.



But the software on tablets is far from perfect. If we take the iPad Pro, Apple has even forked iOS into iPadOS to focus on making multitasking and file management easier on the device. And through partnerships with companies like Adobe, it's been working to bring "real" Photoshop and Illustrator to iPad. That strategy has already backfired, and professionals have mostly negative things to say about the experience.


It could be argued that the power of the cloud and AI could bring new capabilities to smartphones and tablets that would render PCs truly obsolete. After all, that's what Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are all trying to do right now.


A notable example is Google's Stadia cloud gaming service, which promises to bring PC gaming to phones and tablets. However, reviewers are so far underwhelmed by the experience, which means the PC -- and by extension, consoles -- will still be the better option for those who are serious about gaming.


If we also think about VR and AR, the headsets are either PCs (like the HoloLens) or require to be tethered to PCs, like the HTC Vive. In any case, the most useful applications and games in the mixed reality industry still require the power of a PC. On mobile devices like tablets and smartphones, they typically drain the battery in under an hour.



This brings to mind another reasonable explanation why PCs are still alive: they have evolved into different form factors that cater to specific requirements. And there's still room for improvement, as is evident from Microsoft's announcement of Surface Neo, a dual-screen tablet with a folding keyboard.


With the Surface family of devices, Microsoft has proven that PCs are far from obsolete. The company has slowly been introducing new form factors which serve as aspirational designs that manufacturers can copy and improve. They vary in screen size and they all offer multiple forms of input: touch, pen, keyboard and mouse/touchpad.


With the HoloLens, Microsoft initially believed it had hit the jackpot on the next big thing. But during an interview with its creator before the debut of the second-generation HoloLens, it became apparent that this new kind of PC is something that will mostly live in specialized work environments, at least for the time being.


Google is leaving its tablet projects aside to focus on perfecting a new line of Chromebooks. And while that might have something to do with the poor execution with the Pixel Slate in 2018, it's also a sign that PCs will remain relevant for quite some time.


Apple reportedly pooled much of the Mac team's resources towards iOS devices starting in 2016, but after years of complaints from creators and power users, it has finally started to take them seriously again. The newly-released Mac Pro, Pro Display XDR and MacBook Pro 16 prove there are many people that depend on PCs to get things done.


In the end, it's true that today we divide our attention between more devices than just a PC, and our most "personal" computer is the one we hold in our pockets at all times. But after ten years, the prediction that PCs would be replaced by smartphones and tablets has proven mostly wrong. The foreseeable future of tech includes the PC, and even Apple's rumored AR glasses can do little to change that, whenever they arrive.



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  • steven36 changed the title to The PC was supposed to die a decade ago. Instead, this happened

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