The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) takes place this week in Las Vegas, and it's expected that the biggest news for IT pros will be Microsoft announcing be details around Windows 8 touch-based interfaces for tablets. (Jack Madden will be at the Microsoft keynote tonight. Follow him on twitter for updates.) We've been talking about Microsoft, tablets, Windows 8, ARM, and the value of touch-based applications quite a bit this week on BrianMadden.com and ConsumerizeIT.com, culminating with Friday's article "5 reasons it will be hard for Microsoft win the future desktop/tablet/Win8 race."
One of the things I noticed in the comments of that article was that a lot of people were talking about tablets "versus" PCs. ("PCs" in this case is the generic term for traditional computers: desktops and laptops, Macs and Windows.) The conversation about tablets versus PCs is really part of that bigger conversation about "the post PC era" or "the PC is dead." But whenever people talk/argue about that, they generally focus on how much tablets suck for "real" work or how a tablet is not replacing your existing computer.
I'd like to reframe the conversation a bit. Saying the "PC is dead" does not mean that everyone is going to use tablets or that there is not use for a keyboard and mouse. Instead, saying the "PC is dead" is really more about the model of how the whole PC system works. Paying for a computer, paying for an OS, paying for applications that are installed locally, having only one device… if that's not dead today then it's very close.
Tablets' role in the supposed death of the PC
Most people agree that tablets changed the landscape of the PC world, and that tablets are at least somewhat responsible for the death of the PC. (And of course part of this is probably because Steve Jobs said "We have entered the post-PC era" when he announced the iPad.") While this is certainly true, the reason that tablets changed things has nothing to do with touch. I mean it's not like people picked up the tablet and were like, "Oh wow! I'm touching it!!! With my fingers!! I will never use a keyboard and mouse again!!!!"
The real reasons that tablets have changed the game have nothing to do with touch:
First, tablets are a new device--a third device--that everyone will use. This really blew-away the notion of the PC-era that everything you have is "on" a device. In the smart phone days it was possible to sync your phone to your computer, but now with a third device, it's just too complex to sync device-to-device-to-device, so we just move to syncing with and storing data in the cloud. And once you set that precedent, whether you have three devices or thirty devices doesn't really matter.
Second, no one is trading in their PC for a tablet. Sure, they might leave their laptop at home and only take an iPad on a trip with them, but in general, tablets are being purchased to augment the PCs, not to replace them. That means that while people love to touch their tablets with multiple fingers at the same time, they still go back to a keyboard and mouse when it's more appropriate.
Third, the tablet ushered in the idea that end-user consumers are able to choose their own apps. Consumers expect those apps to be cheap (or free) and they expect them to be updates. Consumers expect the OS to be updated and for that update to be free. (Remember the outcry when Apple tried to charge 10 bucks to upgrade iOS on an iPod touch? People freaked the f out, even though charging for OS upgrades is totally normal in the PC world.)
The death of the PC
So everyone will use tablets. PCs won't be used as much since tablets will do in most cases. True and true. But PCs aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
If you want to know how awesome a PC is (and again, remember that the term "PC" here means any traditional computer--laptop, desktop, Mac, Windows, etc.) If you want to know how awesome a PC is, just try using a tablet as your only device and see how well that works out for you.
Some people say, well of course the tablet isn't usable now, but that's because we need a real Microsoft Office suite for it. If we had that, then it would be fine, tablets would rule, and the PC would be dead. But I say "Balderdash!" to that. For the things I want to do in Office, I don't need a touch-based Office, I need a device with a keyboard and mouse!
Other people claim the PC is dead because you can use desktop virtualization to deliver a remote-hosted VDI or terminal server session of Office to a tablet. Again, this is a BS claim, because the remote version of Office is Windows-based and wants to work with a keyboard and mouse. And in fact for it to work well, you need to dock your tablet with a keyboard and mouse. So at that point, your "tablet" is nothing more than a thin client you always have with you. That's not really the "tablet" winning at all--that's Windows with a keyboard and mouse winning!
Maybe the old school "PC" is dead, but we'll be using keyboards & mice for years to come
Computing is all about choosing the right form factor for the right task. Sure, some of us can't afford to have lots of different devices so we try to type on a touchscreen or we read books on our laptops. But in general, we use the right device for the right task. But even in this world of tablets, phones, and cloud storage, a computing device with a keyboard and mouse plays a big role.
So is the PC dead? Yes and no.
The PC is dead because:
- People now use multiple devices instead just one PC
- We don't want to buy and install software on specific devices
- We store all of our apps, media, and data in the cloud instead of on device
The PC is not dead because:
- There are still plenty of times when we want to use a keyboard, mouse, and multiple large screens
So really it comes down to how you define it. But for me, I'm happy to say the PC is dead (or maybe the "PC era" is dead) while still happily using a real computer every day for the majority of my work.
By the way, you could apply a lot of this conversation to the concept of the "cloud-based desktop." A lot of people argue whether PCs will ever really move to the cloud. My view is that they already have. Those who don't like the cloud-based desktop are those who think of a traditional Microsoft Windows-based desktop being delivered from the cloud via something like VDI. I agree that that sucks. But I also argue that I already have a "cloud-based desktop." I use a MacBook Air. My apps come from the App Store. My music and media are in iCloud. My email is on the server. And my data is in Dropbox. I call that "cloud-based" even though I work and save everything locally. (It's just synced to the cloud. And I don't have to use Time Machine to back up my Mac because everything is synced all the time. I can rebuild with only 15min of work and not lose anything.)
In addition to my MacBook Air, I have a Mac Mini at home and a Mac Mini at work. Each of those is running everything locally, with all the content, syncing, and backup coming from the cloud. So I consider myself 100% cloud-based even though I still use three traditional "PCs" to do my job. And ironically the technologies that were supposed to lead to the death of the PC are the exact technologies that enable me to easily have three PCs!