The King Is Dead? Long Live the King? The Rise and Possible Fall of the Personal Computer, and What It Means to Academia

Will the personal computer soon become obsolete? Image courtesy of a Creative Commons license via Flickr user Niv Singer.

Will the personal computer soon become obsolete? Image courtesy of a Creative Commons license via Flickr user Niv Singer.

For at least a couple of years now there’s been quite a buzz about the impending death of the personal computer (for the purposes of this article, the PC, and not to be confused with the more tightly defined Microsoft-based PC). Much of this discussion has been based on the dismal sales trends for PCs for the last four years (the introduction of the iPad is often cited as a catalyst), in conjunction with the booming use and sales of mobile computing devices such as smart phones and tablets. Keep in mind that this trend includes both desktop PCs as well as laptops. The decline in sales of desktop systems started around 2004, at which point laptops sales picked up, until eventually leveling off and then declining starting around 2010. Since 2010 total PC sales have been declining at a rate of roughly 10% per year. Not unexpectedly, there is almost universal agreement that this decline is the direct result of consumers increasingly choosing to purchase mobile devices either as replacements for, or instead of, traditional PCs.

The Nature of the Beasts

Of course the line between a PC and a smart mobile device is fuzzy at best, since, for instance, your iPhone, Android tablet, Amazon Kindle, and new smart watch are all intrinsically computers, and most likely more “personal” than PCs. Some hybrid devices such as the Microsoft Surface blur the lines even further. Regardless of where you choose to draw the line between these families of devices, I think there is one interestingly clear divide between them, at least there is for now — and that is the ease with which you can input, format and edit large amounts of information. Sure smart phones and tablets have become progressively better for typing — remember sending a ten word message on a old flip-phone? — but I know of few people that will choose to create a significant piece of writing on a mobile device, if given the chance to do it on a PC. The same is certainly true of producing computer code, editing photographs, or working on a large spreadsheet of data. Given their current capabilities, and for the near future, in a nutshell PCs are great for producing and mobile devices are great for consuming. Steve Jobs seems to have been at least largely correct with the following prediction:

When Apple’s then-CEO Steve Jobs introduced the iPad three years ago, he predicted that tablets like the iPad would displace PCs for most users, and PCs would become the equivalent of the 1990s workstation: a specialized device used by a small percentage of workers for extreme computing, whether that mean computational capability or tied to needs for very large displays, specialty peripherals, or input mechanisms. (InfoWorld, April 2013)

I wish I could find some data on the unit sales of gas ranges soon after the introduction of microwave ovens — I suspect that we would see some strong similarities in both the sales trends and underlying reasons for switching as we see above.

During the early and through the “golden” years of the PC, there was a constant need for speed enhancements that allowed the PC to perform up to the expectations of the users. For the past few years, roughly coinciding with the rise of mobile devices, it’s my opinion that, for that vast majority of users, performance has ceased to be of significant importance to almost all consumers — or least to those outside of the specialty users Steve Jobs referred to … with gamers thrown in for good measure. Ironically this increasing processing power, in large part developed to feed demand in PCs, is what has allowed mobile devices to succeed with consumers.

Dangers to Academia

Obviously the rise of mobile devices is a result of some very strong market forces as well as exciting technological developments, but this does necessarily make for a rosy outlook in the short term. My main concerns stem from the heavy consumer lean — both in terms of content and as a business model — of mobile devices. Obviously using a mobile device in no way precludes one from using a PC when the task at hand would logically require it. I know (without firm statistics) that the vast majority of our students have both laptops and mobile devices and use both on a regular basis. However, I have some reservations about (institutionally) going out of our way to facilitate the use of mobile devices, especially as this might have some unintended consequences within the academic sphere.

In discussing this article with a colleague in IT, he confided that he increasingly found himself using his mobile device almost exclusively to meet his duties on some days. On one hand, he thought it was wonderful that it allowed him to do so, but on the other that he worried that the limitations of the device (legibility, ease of input, etc.) were such that on those days he adjusted his workflow and to some degree his priorities to deal with these deficiencies. On the fairly low-end task of email, I’m fairly certain that to some degree my “close-reading” of incoming emails, as well as the quality of outgoing content to a larger degree suffer when using a small mobile device.

Another of my concerns related to mobile devices are well summarized in a couple of interesting articles from Wired (1, 2) that make the connection between of the rise of “app-happy” mobile devices, and the decline or (overly alarmist?) possible demise of the Web. The basis of these articles is that mobile devices, due to their (current) nature, lend themselves to content delivery via apps rather than the Web. Perhaps this seems like a subtle point, but they argue that this delivery method intrinsically leads to a less free environment, both intellectually as well as economically.

In large part the “app-happy” nature of mobile devices is not only a result of market forces (i.e. streams of revenues for applications, subscriptions to content, etc.), but also their relative weakness in delivering content in a traditional Web environment due to the previously mentioned technological deficiencies these devices currently have — limited screen area, inefficient input methods, etc. My hopes are that in the not too distant future the evolutionary descendants of technologies like Google Glass, Siri, projected keyboards, and Leap Motion-type interfaces, will allow mobile devices to not only improve the way we consume content but also to match PCs in terms of being platforms for content production.

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