At least two things just won’t die: the PC and claims that the PC is dead. IDC is forecasting a large drop in PC shipments for 2013, but it is also predicting stabilization of yearly shipments at around 300 million units—which is nothing to sneeze at. The recent changes in the computing-device market point to a number of dynamics among consumers and businesses, including those running data centers.
PCs, a term that typically encompasses desktops and notebooks but differentiates from tablets and (sometimes) two-in-ones, are currently besieged from two different directions on the hardware side. First, PC hardware has largely outmatched the ability of commonly used software to exploit its maximum capabilities. In other words, the average user has processor and memory headroom to spare, so even the latest consumer software seldom poses a challenge to machines that are even several years old. The result is declining replacement of existing PCs. This trend is mitigated somewhat on the commercial side.
Second, tablets and smartphones (along with kindred devices like e-readers) offer consumers a more appealing means of enjoying content. After all, why not relax on the couch (or on the bus) with a tablet rather than slouch at a desk in front of a PC? A 7-inch tablet screen may not be as impressive as a 30-inch screen attached to a PC, but the smaller screen can provide just as immersive an experience.
The result of this squeeze is, naturally, declining PC shipments. But according to IDC forecasts, shipments will stabilize around 300 million units in 2015 through 2017.
Although process-technology improvements in accordance with Moore’s Law may no longer offer the same effective benefit to PCs, they do offer benefits to smartphones and tablets, which must pack computing capabilities into smaller volumes and power envelopes. But given that they largely serve as content-consumption rather than content-creation devices, these mobile gadgets will eventually reach the “good enough” level as well, particularly in the consumer market. This factor, however, apparently has less of an impact on the commercial market.
Future of the OS
Although the PC market will likely remain large despite the recent slump, the potential implications of stagnation for the operating-system balance of power are interesting. Microsoft’s Windows products dominate the PC, but its recent Windows 8 struggles at several points. First, the need for perpetual software updates comes into question when users are decelerating their hardware upgrades. If, for instance, Windows 7 does the job, the incentive to move to Windows 8 is lacking. This difficulty is compounded by Microsoft attempting to fuse tablet and desktop experiences through what amounts to a bifurcation of its OS into a traditional desktop and a metro-style interface supporting touchscreens—something that has yet to catch on heavily even in notebooks, let alone desktops. Furthermore, the utility of Office software on tablets is dubious, calling into question whether a unified operating system that spans tablets and PCs is worth the hassle.
Smaller competitors to Windows include the open-source Linux and Apple’s OS lineup. Apple, possibly smelling blood in the water following Windows 8’s lackluster performance, now offers its customers free upgrades to OS X (“Mavericks”), as well as free OS X iWork apps to new Mac customers, according to Computerworld. But Linux and similar OSs have a much larger share of the infrastructure market, as well as a solid footing in mobile devices by way of Android. But whether the market will support a unification of OSs across platforms—such as what Microsoft is targeting with Windows 8 for PCs and tablets—remains to be seen.
Although unlikely, an interesting possibility would be Microsoft taking Windows into the open-source realm. Given its installed base of users and software, doing so would probably ensure the OS’s dominance without necessarily forcing the company to give up a central role, like that of the Linux Foundation for its eponymous operating system. Although Linux has remained small in PCs, given its role in other areas, it can only gain in notebooks and desktops, particularly as Microsoft stumbles.
Data Centers: Cashing It Out
For data centers, the dynamics of the PC market versus mobile mania have several implications. The main implication is centralization of resources. Since mobile devices focus on content consumption, providing that content is a critical task. The typical user desire for content accessibility and novelty, however, means that central content sources (i.e., data centers) are the preferred means of delivery, rather than content already stored on the device (think Pandora or Netflix versus a collection of MP3s or videos). The result is a growing need for data center infrastructure to enable the cloud to deliver this content. Although mobile may be the main driver of this trend, PCs are also relying increasingly on the cloud, such as for live backups and the normal array of streaming content.
Since streaming media accounts for the vast majority of Internet traffic, the question for cloud data centers serving mobile (and even fixed) users is when “peak video” will be reached: at some point, video consumption must reach a saturation level, in part because higher resolutions eventually become overkill relative to screen size and the abilities of the eye to perceive them. To be sure, data centers provide other services, but the relative amount of traffic associated with these services remains small.
Can the PC Make Gains?
For the PC to gain steam again, it must offer something that mobile devices either cannot offer or cannot offer yet. Three-dimensional video and gaming capabilities have seen unimpressive adoption; furthermore, they wouldn’t necessarily be limited to PCs, preventing them from being a differentiating factor. The main draw of PCs is their content-creation capabilities, but just how PC makers can improve these capabilities to expand the market is uncertain. And with tablets and smartphones quickly increasing their processing power, as well as additional PC compute power being overkill for most users, the avenues of improvement remain narrow. Even smaller size is a minimal draw: packing the entire PC into a monitor is a tiny benefit when the user has room to spare in a home or office—plus, a tower form factor is more amenable to upgrades like added memory, further extending the life of the machine.
PCs could return to their former glory if some new application requires the level of performance that only they can deliver. But with video reaching its maximum appreciable resolution and video games already delivering amazing realism, the identity of such software remains obscure, particularly for the average user.
Another possibility is a more distributed Internet. Instead of PCs being exclusively consumers of services, imagine a distributed network of PCs serving as infrastructure in place of high-density hubs like data centers. This model would require a major shift in thinking, however, and it remains on the horizon at best.
The PC is far from dead. IDC numbers indicate it will be a stable market; it may grow little through the rest of the decade, but growth is ultimately unsustainable anyway. It simply has the hallmarks of a mature market. The interesting question is what can be done with all the extra processing power that PCs have but seldom employ. The answer to this question may simply be “nothing,” or it may be a new networking model that enables distributed rather than centralized computing. Either way, however, PCs will remain the workhorses of the computing world, even if tablets and smartphones take the spotlight as the biggest consumers.
Leading article image courtesy of Hannaford