(Re-)Embracing the PC

(Re-)Embracing the PC

The PC is the comeback kid of 2014

I know the year isn't quite over yet, but if there's one thing I'm really happy about—excited for, really—in 2014, it's the resurgence of the PC. After three years of coping with the notion that mobile devices like smart phones and tablets could somehow replace PCs, we now have a more nuanced view. And the funny thing is, it took the rise of these mobile devices to drive home how relevant PCs really are.

When it introduced the Surface Pro 3 back in June, Microsoft's Panos Panay spoke to this changing understanding of the market. Everyone thought the iPad was going to kill the PC, Panay said at the time. But in the quarter that had just ended, the iPad—once Apple's fastest-growing product of all time—had suffered its first-ever year-over-year sales shortfall. Then it happened again in the next quarter too. And according to IDC, Apple will sell fewer iPads in all of 2014 than it did in the previous year, and overall tablet sales are slowing to a crawl in 2014 after a feverish 50+ growth rate the year before.

The PC industry isn't relying entirely on the right-sizing of tablet sales, though it's certainly helping that the effective lifetime of a tablet is close to that of a PC than a smart phone (4-5 years vs. 2). PC makers have also helped themselves by attacking the low-end of the market first with Chromebooks and then more recently with as-inexpensive Windows PCs thanks to Microsoft's "zero dollar" licensing. And some of these cheap PCs—shocker—are pretty good. That certainly makes a big difference.

Those are interesting stories in their own right. But when I think about the lost years of Windows 8—which I'll stretch back to 2011 to account for the pre-release cycle as well—I see the makings of a tragedy. As with most bad ideas, Windows 8 started out with good intentions, to take Microsoft's dominance in what we now think of as "desktop computing" and extend it into this mobile first, cloud first world.

It was a bold bet. And while some will always mock Microsoft for melding a new mobile platform onto the tried and true desktop, there is some good work there too. And thanks to Windows 10, which will finally strip away most of the goofiness of Windows 8, more than a few people may actually start using that new stuff—the more reliable and secure Modern app platform and store, the mobile device management capabilities, and the deep integration with cloud services, among others—going forward. That, too, is a good thing.

But regardless of the specifics, the one thing that always nagged at me during the Windows 8 debacle was the central message that highly connected, highly mobile devices would replace PCs, that PCs would in effect become these simpler devices. Surely there is room in the heterogeneous personal computing world of the future for PCs and mobile devices. (Recall for a moment that Microsoft talked up something called "the PC-plus era" before it jumped into devices and services and then mobile first, cloud first.)

A year ago, I penned an editorial I had originally titled The Right Tool for the Job (the title was changed somewhat, dubiously, I think, for SEO reasons) in which I expressed my frustration with devices that try to do too much. A phablet, for example, can replace both a smart phone and a tablet, and it does so for some, I guess, but I find them too big for a phone and too small for a tablet. And a 2-in-1 type PC, like Microsoft Surface, can replace both a tablet and a laptop, though my experience with many of these devices suggests that they are basically only good at one thing. Surface Pro 3, for example, is a wonderful Ultrabook, and it's thin, light and powerful. But it's a lousy tablet, with a fan and a terrible app ecosystem.

What's happened is that smart phones and tablets have been humming along and improving nicely over the past few years, but then so have PCs. So it's possible to carry three devices—a phone, a mini-tablet and an Ultrabook—and be carting around less weight than you might have with just a standard business-class laptop from a few years ago. And each of those devices does something very well, serves a unique purpose.

Smart phones present an obvious use case, but the notion that a tablet can replace a PC is quickly becoming passé. Tablets are consumption devices first and foremost, especially iPad and Android tablets, and are generally ill-suited to content creation. I carry one for reading, and to watch movies and TV shows on flights. They're great for casual games as well.

This leaves the PC ... to be a PC. A productivity workhorse that can focus on the tools and tasks needed by content creators. A device that is now freed of the consumption activities we enjoy instead on smart phones and tablets. The PC has a role, a purpose. And if you need to actually get work done, hell yeah, it's a truck. There is nothing wrong with that, and I'm tired of being ashamed of the PC.

You may feel differently, and your needs may differ. You may be able to get work done on an iPad. That's absolutely OK, there's room in this world for all kinds of devices. Including PCs. PCs with touch screens. PCs with transforming bodies that can be sort-of tablets. It's all good.

Welcome back, PC.

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