The end of the PC? No, and stop saying that.

Another year, another round of "OMG the PC is dying!" surveys.

We get the hint, market analysts. We've been expecting this for a long time. The sky is not falling. The PC is not dying. The computer market is doing exactly what we'd expect a functioning market to do under the current conditions.

The technology is mature

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, we had to upgrade computers all the time. What we had was never good enough- it was always too slow, or running out of space, or lacking the cool technology of the year that new programs depended on.

That hasn't been the case recently. All workstation-class hardware since 2006, and most consumer hardware since 2008, can comfortably run any software an average modern user would want.

Only in a few specialized cases, such as dedicated gaming rigs or oilfields exploration, are the performance gains from newer hardware clearly visible. The only technological advance since 2008 that really made a difference to the perceived speed of a regular desktop or laptop computer was the solid-state disk, and few people will replace a complete, fully functional and usable machine just to get an SSD.

Not everyone needs a full PC

If your main reasons for using a computer are communications and entertainment, you don't need a traditional computer anymore. A smartphone or tablet will probably suit you just fine. Those two sectors, not surprisingly, are taking off like crazy as people with consumer-style workflows migrate to hardware better suited to those workflows.

People who create stuff on the computer- engineers, graphic designers, photographers, programmers and so on- will never be able to migrate those workloads to their phone. Even if you can fit the necessary processing power in a tiny portable gadget, these folks still need the arrays of big monitors, the full-size user interfaces, and the ability to run their own arbitrary code. We'll see a re-thinking of how these tasks are done (possibly moving much of the compute-heavy stuff to the server side) but the tasks themselves won't disappear, and neither will the more powerful productivity-enhancing hardware that professionals gravitate to.

Windows 8 sucks

The new Windows 6.2 (marketing folks call it Win 8) has some great under-the-hood improvements compared to 6.1 (Win 7) and 6.0 (Vista).

But, like a Lada body on a Corvette chassis, Win 8's look and feel are kind of disjointed. I've used two Win8 preview builds, the RTM build, and the server (2012) build, and I just cannot imagine what posessed these guys to force the use of a tablet user interface on machines that don't even have a touchscreen.

We now have 18 years of precedent that says "this is how a Windows user interface works", with only incremental changes along the way. If you suddenly take away all the familiar reference points and redesign it around a touchscreen that isn't even available on most computers, a lot of people will take only a minute or three to conclude "I don't want that".

Whether the new Windows is actually better is, for the purposes of this discussion, irrelevant. It is too different for many people, reviews of it are generally scathing, and it is not much of a stretch to say that Win 8 could be turning people (and certainly a lot of businesses) away from buying computers at this time.

The good stuff is still selling fine

Hewlett-Packard: Down 24% this year.

Dell: Down 11%.

Acer: Down 30%.

Lenovo: Holding steady.

Apple Mac: Down a bit, but only because their forecasts were low so they were sold out.

See the trend? Some of those companies sold junk that was short-lived, troublesome and hard to fix. When those machines died early, the customers came back looking for replacements- and found only more junk. It probably doesn't help that modern laptop screens almost universally suck; today's standard 1366x768 resolution looks pixelated and cramped even when compared to an 8-year-old Compaq.

Other manufacturers kept their reputation for quality more-or-less intact, shipped stuff the customers actually wanted (read: sturdy, reliable, not Win 8), and did just fine.

What happens next?

I'm no market analyst. I'm not running numbers here, and I'm not poring over the annual reports of dozens of companies. I'm just reporting from my perspective here at ground level, and what I see is:

  • The market for powerful, high quality desktop and laptop PCs built on the x86-64 architecture will stabilize, at a lower level than today, and remain that way for a long time. Too many people depend on these things for them to disappear.
  • The market for build-it-yourself and upgrade components for PCs will remain strong, although some new technologies might not find their way into this market.
  • The market for cheap, low-end PCs will continue to decline until there is no profit left in them, as buyers who would have looked at this sector move to tablets and smartphones instead.
  • The market for powerful servers will continue to grow.
  • The market for smartphones and tablets built on low-power architectures like ARM will grow, and eventually start to stabilize. No one vendor is likely to achieve long-term dominance, although some could be driven out entirely.

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