In tech circles, there’s been a lot of talk lately about how we’re entering a “post-PC era.” The idea is that, because your phone and tablet can do most or all of the things you need a computing device to do, you no longer need a traditional computer at all. Or, as Apple CEO Tim Cook put it when introducing the latest iPad Pro model, “Why would you buy a PC anymore? No really, why would you buy one?”
Maybe I’m just a grouchy old man clinging to the past, but I don’t see desktop or laptop computers going away anytime soon. They’re so much more convenient for some of our most important tasks that I doubt smartphones and tablets will ever fully replace them.
The case for the post-PC era
There are compelling reasons to think we’re nearing the end of the PC. Laptop and desktop sales have been declining for exactly the same years smartphone and tablet sales have been on the rise. Few people really get excited about the announcement of new PCs in the same way they do about new phones. Vaunted tech commentator Walt Mossberg for The Verge recently compared PCs to furniture to explain how boring they’ve become.
Phones and tablets can indeed do most of the things we used to do on PCs. Heck, they often do them in more convenient ways. They let us connect to social networks, pay bills, check email, and do basic web surfing. They let us take notes and edit photos. You can even use your phone to cash checks. Just the fact that we always have our phone handy makes them much more useful than a computer that sits at home on a desk.
Where phones and tablets fall short
But just like furniture, PCs serve an important purpose — many purposes, in fact. For all the ways smartphones are equal to or better than PCs, they fall short when it comes to some of the most important tasks we do on computers.
It’s the hardware limitations that hold them back. The touchscreen is a fantastic input device for many tasks, but it’s not the best one for every application. The idea of focusing on just one app at a time is also a very real limitation for phones and tablets. Here are some of the things that can be incredibly frustrating to do on our current touchscreen devices:
- Moving information between multiple apps
- Working in large spreadsheets
- Switching between multiple browser tabs
- Managing files
Phones and tablets are powerful devices nowadays, but they’re not suited to complex tasks. Just think about trying to do your taxes on a phone, or writing a research paper. Anything that requires you to switch around between two or more apps quickly becomes a headache on a touchscreen device.
They’re limited in other ways, too. Think of all the ports on most computers. Mobile devices don’t have those, so you can’t do things like connect external hard drives or displays. Most tasks associated with work just aren’t well-suited to small, touch-based screens.
The PC will prevail
There are many reasons phones and tablets are great, but they make complex jobs much more difficult to do than PCs. Phones and tablets are remarkable for their convenience, but PCs are remarkable for their versatility, and we cannot forget that. We live in a world where that versatility comes in handy way too often to leave it behind.
What’s happening now with PC sales is a market correction. They’ll continue to decline until desktop and laptops find their new place in a world filled with portable touchscreen devices. We don’t need PCs nearly as often as we used to, but if the post-PC world is on its way, it’s still a long way off. I suspect it’ll be some technology other than smartphones or tablets that finally kills the PC. I don’t know what that would look like, but it’s probably more similar to today’s PCs than to today’s mobile devices.