Personal Computers: End of the PC Era?

Recently, three major developments seem to paint an uncertain future for the personal computer. First, Hewlett Packard intends to sell its PC division that is lagging in profits. Second, Dell Computer has warned about slow PC sales ahead. Third, Google attempts to buy Motorola Mobility, its biggest acquisition so far. Is this a result of the recent deep recession affecting PC sales, or is it a new trend unfolding?

I think the trend is clear: the market is moving from desktop to mobile computing due to the growth and sophistication of wireless technology. We have seen many downfalls in the past: the typewriter, record player, tape recorder, and CRT television. Even land line phones are being squeezed out as people substitute them with mobile phones.

Before pronouncing the death of the personal computer, we should note that the PC has established itself firmly in our lives and will not disappear quickly. The PC cannot become obsolete for one obvious reason. It is tied to the power of the computer chips and also to the Internet, which are the same factors that drive the mobile phone. In addition, the PC performs more sophisticated functions with a big memory, a keyboard for real writing, and a big screen for more contents to view and edit. The only handicap is that the PC is not mobile if it is a desktop with all the connecting wires and parts. For that reason, the desktop cannot take full advantage of the latest wireless communications technology.

The staying power of the PC is shown by its evolution to the laptop and recently to the iPad, thereby turning itself into a mobile compact computing device. Its linkage to wireless technology is a natural development to enable mobility. Mobility also leads to the elimination of parts and connecting wires. For instance, the mouse is no longer needed now; a virtual keyboard now replaces the real one on the iPad; and the screen has become an integral part of the laptop.

Another staying power of the PC is its commercial use. Can you envision a modern office without desktops? Can you put a mobile phone or an iPad on each employee’s desk instead? You can do it as a supplement, but not to replace the desktop for the great variety of work it performs. There is also a management problem here. How can the office supervisor ensure the staff is physically present? With a mobile device, the employees do not have to sit there and work. They may as well work in a health club, in a park, at home, or even in the streets.

The soft spot of the PC is the physical limit of mobility, not technological sophistication. The physical limit can easily be overcome. The PC has already adapted to mobility as evidenced by the laptop and the iPad. Ironically, these two mobile adaptations wind up hurting desktop sales as mobility becomes the new trend. On the other hand, the good news is that desktops are firmly in place for commercial use, and will remain tied to business growth.

The future growth of mobile devices such as the cell phone, iPad, and laptop will outstrip that of the desktop, especially for personal use among the young. The saturation point for desktops is probably one or two per household. Since the cell phone and the iPad are cheaper, and carry more individualistic appeals, the saturation point can reasonably be one per person. So there is plenty of room to grow as far as wireless technology can advance.

One last point I want to make is the possible integration between the cell phone and the television set and other home apliances. If the cell phone could be linked seamlessly to the TV screen with wireless technology, it would make yet one more adverse impact on PC sales because a lot of work could be done on the big TV screen with touch capability. This TV integration would enable the cell phone compete with the laptop or iPad, thereby hurting their sales.  (August 2011)


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