Who Murdered the PC?

What many of us think of a “computer”, the so-called Personal Computer (PC) has been beaten up and is on life support, with no salvation in sight, only assassins.

The once-mighty PC is going the way of the abacus, vinyl records and disco. There will always be some knocking about here and there, but essentially PCs are consigned to the scrap heap of history as the Cruel World kicks sand into their faces and moves on.

You’ve probably heard of the “Post-PC” world. You’re in it. Ten years ago it was unthinkable that these hulking PC boxes were under threat of extinction. Those were exciting times, when PCs doubled in power every year or two. That was a consequence of “Moore’s Law”, in honour of Gordon Moore, formerly of Intel, who observed that the number of transistors on a silicon chip (the number-crunching processor at the heart of the computer) was doubling every eighteen months.

A decade ago Moore’s law fuelled the “Megahertz Wars”, where computers competed on how fast they ran. In the Nineties PCs rocketed in power from a few Megahertz to a hundred times as speedy in a stratospheric orgy of exponential growth. This growth made billionaires of many silicon tycoons.

But there was an unlikely villain lurking to spoil our fun. Heat. More performance requires more energy. If the exponential speed trend had continued then by 2010 chips would have vaporised at nuclear reactor temperatures.

So chip speed has increased only incrementally over the last decade. However computers have still become ever more powerful thanks to new generations of chips that execute software in parallel. Modern chips have “cores”, which are like mini-chips. So the computer can assign different applications – or even different tasks within applications -to different cores, which speeds everything up nicely. A three lane motorway allows for greater throughput than a country lane. For example, in a computer game the artificial intelligence code can run in its own core so it doesn’t slow down the rest of the game.

Even so, PCs are evolving slowly, with only incremental improvements in performance year on year. That gives us less reason to upgrade our PC. This stagnation is compounded by a lack of killer-applications that compelled us to buy new PC’s every two or three years. These days Office applications run fine on hardware bought five years ago. Even modest video editing can be done on dusty old machines. These days only the hardest core gamers and other extreme power users crave the fastest possible hardware.

Stagnation is worsened as we have less disposable income now than we did back in the day, thanks to high taxation, “quantitative easing” and bank bail outs). We have fewer quid to splurge on PCs. This puts pressure on profit margins.

However, that’s not the whole story. In late 2012 Microsoft released a new version of its Windows operating system, Windows 8. The operating system has a gaudy, tile-based User Interface (UI) plastered on top of the traditional Windows desktop UI.

The market reacted with nuclear devastation. Usually a new release of the Windows operating system results in a profitable spike of PC sales, but Windows 8 caused a drop in sales at continues to this day. The PC market has been declining now for five consecutive quarters, which is an unprecedented collapse of the PC industry. Microsoft’s PC partners are in a state of famine except one, a Chinese manufacturer called Lenovo, who are increasing their share of a declining market.

IBM, who invented the PC computer format, were the first major player to get out of the market, selling their PC business to Lenovo. HP have emulated IBM by largely moving away from PC-flogging to the IT Services Industry. The once mighty Dell are struggling and its frustrated founder, Michael Dell, is battling to make the corporation he founded private again.

Windows 8 has been an unmitigated disaster all round. Microsoft have rushed out an upgrade called Windows 8.1, however this does not fix the chief problem with Windows 8, the hideous tile-based UI.

So why is Microsoft persisting with its deeply unpopular user interface? It is a marketing play, pure and simple. Sneaky Microsoft wants us to get accustomed to their new UI, with a view to encouraging us to buy Microsoft’s Windows 8-based mobile phones and tablets, which have the same UI. Sadly for Microsoft, sales of its mobile gimcracks are still flat-lining.

It is telling that Microsoft are alienating its existing PC user base in a vain attempt to gain market share in the lucrative mobile market: Microsoft knows that the PC market is a dog. The rising stars are phones and tablets.

Which brings us to mobile devices. PCs are facing brutal competition from mobile computers. People are buying cheap cheap tablets that run Google’s Android, or expensive tablets: Apple’s iPads. Hook up a tablet to a keyboard, mouse and monitor and you have a PC-replacement. Therefore fewer people need a fully fledged PC and those that have a PC spend less time using it. Google and Microsoft are enemies, and it is in the interests of Google to bring about the downfall of the PC market to undermine Microsoft. As Google make Android, a Linux-based mobile operating system, we can see how this game is being played.

So the PC is dying for four reasons: popular software does not require the latest generation of PC’s to run; people have less disposable income; people are repulsed by the bizarre Windows 8 operating system (that most new PC’s come encumbered with) and people are buying mobile computers instead.

Most PC users (or would-be PC users) now carry computers in our pockets and handbags, we carry our “smart phones” around with us wherever we go (which makes the little bustards prefect for spying on us, by the way). In effect our phones are our most “Personal” computers. The Personal Computer is dead. Long live the Personal Computer.

10 comments on “Who Murdered the PC?

  1. John B
    July 21, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    Who killed the PC?

    The consumer.

    That is what happens in a free market, and has been doing so since Mankind started to barter.

    Oddly, so few people particularly politicians understand that.

    • theaustrianway
      July 22, 2013 at 7:35 am #

      Well said that man!

    • James Eadon
      July 22, 2013 at 8:22 am #

      @John B – “The consumer.” – That’s true. It’s worth mentioning that first there has to be a genuine choice.

      Until recently there were fewer options for the consumer. It’s only now moile computers are available that consumer choice has been able to kick in. And it seems that the moment Microsoft Windows computer has inexpensive competition that works “out of the box” the consumer has voted with their cards and purses.

      Even now, if the average comsumer wants a desktop or laptop PC his choice is either WIndows PC or Mac (although that’s changing too, with Google’s Chrome OS products launching into retail).

      Some savvy consumers will buy a Linux PC but Microsoft ensure that Authorised Equipment Manufacturers of PC’s do not pre-install Linux on PC’s. By such business tactics, Microsoft have been reducing consumer choice on inexpensive PC’s with operating systems pre-installed.

      A good reason to go with Linux is that it is open source and therefore unlikely to have back doors that the NSA can spy on you through. Such back doors would be quickly spotted by the open source engineers.

  2. Teleros
    July 22, 2013 at 12:16 am #

    “There will always be some knocking about here and there, but essentially PCs are consigned to the scrap heap of history as the Cruel World kicks sand into their faces and moves on.”

    Someone is seriously underestimating the gaming scene. Sure, in an office environment you may be able to use “iPad + monitor” instead of “hulking great tower + monitor”, but you simply can’t fit the best hardware into even a small form factor case, let alone anything laptop sized or smaller.

    If anything, these days you get a symbiotic relationship between gamers, game developers & hardware manufacturers. You don’t *need* anything fancier than a 1GHz CPU and a couple of GB of RAM to do office work frankly (sure, MS Office required specs go up, but mostly due to fancy stuff that frankly, isn’t necessary). But if you want to play the 2013 Tomb Raider with maxed out graphics (and many people do)? Yeah, time to buy or build a machine with an energy budget small towns can’t compete with, and the kind of phase-change cooling system normally found nowhere outside of Met Office supercomputers.

    And of course, next year’s triple-A game will work best on even better system specs, so time to pester Intel & NVidia or AMD for a new graphics card or whatever. And thus the cycle continues.

    • James Eadon
      July 22, 2013 at 8:32 am #

      @Teleros I include games PC’s in the “There will always be some knocking about here and there” bracket, the desktop PC form factor will not vanish any time soon!
      Gaming PC’s are a big market, but not big enough for Microsoft, which needs to make scores of billions of bucks per year.
      The games industry is in a crisis, with either “triple-A block buster games that have almost block-buster movie sized budgets or with casual games made by one or two developers.
      The former need (or used to need) high powered PC’s but these days those games are playng it “safe” with lowest-common denominator game play + backwards compatibility with (relatively under-powered) games consoles. They are alienating the hard-core gamers.
      With Valve’s steam introducing ever more games to the Linux platform, other publishers may follow. Some hard core gamers will be switching over to Linux, which is a faster operating system in any case. Again this spells trouble for Microsoft Windows.

      • Chris
        July 22, 2013 at 8:00 pm #

        Linux is for computer geeks excluding Android which is different.

        Go to any office and you see PCs. You don’t see ipads or android tablets.

  3. darren
    July 22, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    You answered your own questoins with vinyl records and disco have not gone away… 2013 is the year of the vinyl… new or old vinyl sales are soring.. why its been replaced multiple times.. disco did not die either, just changed and renamed itself…

    “Pressure on profit margins… ” profit margins were under pressure for a lot longer than 2007.. this was Dell’s trump card to make a lot of companies go out of business as they reduced quality downwards…

    “Microsoft’s PC partners are in a state of famine” This is a MS purge to get rid of the partners/OEMs… so MS can become the sole owner of their platform.. its going to be slow going unless others step up to the plat and the OEMs move away from MS/Windows..

    “Google to bring about the downfall of the PC market” I don’t want to speak for Google but this would be extreamly daft thing to do… all that add money would shrink with PC market… Chromebook is increasing in market share…

    As you end with the PC is fine and dandy, its interesting that the BBC Micro entered the market only 4 months after the model 5150.. and it is the architecture and heratage of the BBC Micro that is doing so well agenst the convergence of hardware standards and processor(s) i.e. x86 Intel/AMD and originally IBM, then MS business related software. ((be interesting to see if Pi are catching up to the number of Dell PCs sold world wide)).

    You touch on Moore’s law that fuelled the “Megahertz Wars” which in reality over shadowed other compeating architecture(s) on the hardware side of things these have progressed fast over the last twenty years, which we can all take for granted but one part has never adaquatlly been answered, or caught up and really that is where were the “software wars” why do I say this well tablets and phones may not fuel the changed required to take software to a totally better place…. The point of Windows has been keeping it stuck in the 90’s… Win8 is a different picture but what software is being offered nothing new….

    For more than 20 years most computing education at least in the UK the focus was on the office suite and standardising on just the one. This was the single biggest failure in education system for at least 200 years.

    Its not all educations fault many of the competing platforms were always shooting themselves in the foot, looking at Novel, IBM and many others. They had the tools to compete but would insist on using MS products at the cost of their own.

    And I never even mentioned Linux/Unix once in the reply..

  4. James Eadon
    July 22, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

    @Darren – points well made! Espeically about the terrible state of computing education in schools, hopefully the Raspberry Pi will help to fix this, but schools and universities are invaded by Microsoft “Evangelists” who are pushing their products on the young.

    “MS can become the sole owner of their platform” –
    MS seem to be obsessed with becoming Apple, but their brand has increasingly negative baggage to be “prestige”.

    “And I never even mentioned Linux/Unix once in the reply.”

    Self defeating statement fail 😉

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  6. andrewporter
    July 31, 2013 at 1:42 pm #

    The world is changing -our office runs on Ubuntu [ pcs and server] its a user friendly form of linux. Fast stable easy to use and FREE. Check it out.

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