the PC: still alive, but barely twitching?


The PC is 30. Will it make 40?

It was August 1981 when IBM first rolled out the 5150. It had a blisteringly fast 4.77 MHz 8088 8-to-16-bit processor, and it dazzled users with 16 colours in text mode (but only four in graphics mode). You could buy it with up to two floppy drives, it shipped with an amazing 64K of RAM, up to 2 floppy drives, and you could pick one up for a cool $1500.

Thirty years later, IBM has long-since left the PC business. HP, which replaced it as the number one PC vendor, is now looking to sell off its own PC division, and Apple is replacing it as the top vendor of mobile computers. But Apple only sits at this tree if you factor in sales of one of its most successful products: the iPad.

Tablet computers and other small-format devices have stolen the show in the last couple of years. How will they affect the future of the PC, and will the PC as we know it still be around in ten years’ time?

Will Future PCs be Tablet Computers? Smartphones?

Different numbers tell different stories. In the left corner, we have Baird Equity Research, which conducted a survey of 1,114 consumers, to see how they felt about a post-PC future. Only 6% said that they could do without a PC now, while 11% said that they might be able to ditch theirs in the future. The rest said that they’d be relying on PCs for the foreseeable.

On the other hand, consumers are fickle - we only need to look at Apple’s talent in telling them what they want to see. And the fundamentals are persuasive. Mary Meeker, well-respected Morgan Stanley analyst, has predicted that smartphones will outsell PCs (both desktop and notebook-based) next year. Her figures suggest that they outpaced desktop PCs alone three years ago.

More persuasive still are breakdowns of component spend. According to IHS iSuppli, an analyst firm that tracks electronics component markets, OEMs will buy $55.4 billion worth of semiconductors for use in wireless devices this year. That’s a 10.7 percent increase from last year’s $50.1 billion. Semiconductors used to make computers are up just 1.2 percent to $53.1 billion.

Will the Future PC be More Than a Tool?

Today, IBM's Mark Dean, who was one of a dozen engineers working on the original 5051, uses a tablet as his main computer. The PC is over, he says. “They’re going the way of the vacuum tube, typewriter, vinyl records, CRT and incandescent light bulbs.” But what’s most interesting about his blog post on the subject is that unlike others, he doesn’t see the PC being replaced by a particular device. Rather, he muses, computing is entering a new era, where it will have a greater role in human progress.

“Innovation flourishes best not on devices but in the social spaces between them, where people and ideas meet and interact,” he says. This rings true, but for it to happen, we have to redefine our relationship with the tools we use. For thirty years, we have been a slave to the PC. Anyone who has tried to transfer gigabytes of files between one computer and another will attest to that.

In a post-PC world, our computing experience will follow us around, whether it’s to a tablet computer, a smartphone, a Microsoft Surface-enabled office desk, or a TV screen. We won’t have to worry about logging in with antiquated password systems, transferring settings, or copying files. It will all just work. On any device. And it will be awesome.  

What do you think?


Credit: © lunamarina -

Stewart Baines
Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.