We’ve finally reached the point in the personal computer’s lifecycle that we’re bored with the PC. The tablet, which some analysts thought would replace the PC, hasn’t quite lived up to that promise. For some populations, smartphones are approaching that situation in many major markets, but the PC still persists. So what comes next? What’s the future of the PC?
Former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée writes for Quartz, “You could say that the PC revolution began in 1968 when the term ‘personal computer’ was first used to describe the Hewlett-Packard 9100 desktop calculator.” He explains how the subsequent years of progress unfolded, “The first microprocessors gave PCs a strong kick, Moore’s Law fueled growth, and the internet explosion finished the job. By the early 1990’s, PCs had become universal office and home fixtures.” But as the “revolution” approaches its fiftieth year, sales of conventional PCs are declining; they’re expected to fall by 8.7% in 2015 and aren’t expected to stabilize until 2017.
Tablets were expected to replace the PC, but as limitations of both the software and hardware have prevented users from completing all of their tasks on a tablet, the hype has come and gone. In Apple’s financial quarter that ended in June, iPad sales were down 23%. And in the fiscal quarter that ended in September, iPad sales were down 19.8%. In fact, Computerworld reported that the $4.3 billion of iPad sales that Apple recorded was the smallest figure since the first quarter of 2011, less than a year after the tablet’s original debut.
Gassée thinks that smartphones have contributed to the decline of the PC in that they serve as a portal to the Internet for many users. Meanwhile, PC makers are struggling to imagine the future of the industry. Will personal computers take new forms, like smartwatches or smart glasses? Or will existing form factors, like the desktop, the laptop, the tablet, and the hybrid, evolve into the devices of the future?
Gassée argues that the results of past predictions about the future of computing “are an invitation to modesty,” noting the little that’s so far become of twenty years’ speculation about virtual reality or the once-hyped promise of handwriting recognition. In the meantime, no one predicted the smartphone revolution, and he thinks that when it comes to the creation of new form factors, “We will only see the path after the fact.”
It’s easier to imagine what will happen to existing form factors. The iPad Pro, for instance, may point to a future in which the iPad evolves into a laptop that runs iOS, since, as Gassée argues, iOS has already “become the OS in Apple’s future.” iOS currently runs on more than a billion devices, and while Mac sales are measured in millions per quarter, iOS device sales are measured in the tens of millions. iOS is considerably smaller than OS X and has room to grow into a more fully-featured operating system. Meanwhile, the Mac could continue to exist. “There are jobs where a 27” iMac, its 5K display, 4 GHz Intel processor, 64 GB of RAM, and terabytes of disk storage is irreplaceable — and will stay so for some time,” Gassée explains.
Microsoft is already testing its own vision of converged computing devices. Windows 10, the company’s new operating system, runs not only on its PCs and hybrid PCs, but also on Windows smartphones in the form of Windows 10 Mobile. That enables the same apps to run on all devices — or it would, if there were more developers interested in Microsoft’s mobile platform. As The Cheat Sheet recently reported, many device manufacturers are trying to figure out which device will claim second place after the smartphone, which many expect to dominate for years to come. But Microsoft is championing a future in which no specific device reigns supreme, with experiments in a wide variety of different form factors for hardware and distribution of its software across platforms.
Microsoft’s strategy breaks with the convention set by other tech companies. Apple, for instance, makes both hardware and software, but its software works almost exclusively on its own devices, not on other companies’ platforms. And while Google gives away its Android and Chrome operating systems to other hardware manufacturers, it makes only a small line of devices of its own, which it rarely sells for a profit.
As demonstrated by Apple’s venturing into new territory with the iPad Pro and Microsoft’s testing the waters with its wide selection of new devices — including the Display Dock that enables you to use your smartphone as a PC with an external monitor, mouse, and keyboard — everyone is eager to figure out what form the PC will take in the future. But as past attempts to predict the future have shown, we’re rarely able to foresee what will change the way we interact with technology before it happens. So what form factors are in the future of the PC? It’s hard to tell.
But what we can say with some certainty is that the masterful combination of software and hardware will likely become increasingly important as we demand more of our devices. It’ll be interesting to see how device makers with all kinds of portfolios and ambitions innovate to meet that demand.