The Health of the PC Has Nothing to Do With the Health of Windows. Seriously!

By  |  Friday, September 2, 2011 at 4:11 am

I’m beginning to think that I’m the only person on the planet who feels this way, but bear with me: I have an astoundingly elastic notion of what a PC is. I don’t think it has to run Windows. I don’t believe it needs to come in a desktop tower or a portable clamshell case. If it’s a general-purpose computing device that allows me to run third-party apps, I think of it as a PC–whether it’s a ThinkPad, a MacBook, an iPad, a Droid, or a ChromeBook.

That was the line of thinking that led me to title my column for this week “The PC Isn’t Dying–It’s Just Evolving.” I don’t see the iPad as a not-PC; I see it as a PC that happens to come in a new form factor, run new software, and be optimized for somewhat different use case scenarios than a garden-variety laptop.

(At the moment, I’m at the IFA electronics show in Berlin, and my iPad is my PC–it’s the computer I’ve been taking to the show floor each day, and the one I’m writing these words on. And I’m…happy! In some ways happier than if I’d lugged a Windows laptop or a MacBook to the conference. More thoughts on that experience in a separate post.)

I think that the roots of my stubborn way of thinking date back to the late 1970s. The two dominant computing platforms were the TRS-80 (which I used) and the Apple II (which I despised). As different as they were, they both involved a one-piece case design, with the electronics inside a case with a built-in keyboard, that later went away. But when those platforms were joined (and eventually replaced) by others, I didn’t think of it as the PC dying. I thought of it as the PC morphing into something better.

A few decades later, I became the editor of PC World magazine, a publication which, I’ll cheerfully admit, was largely dedicated to Windows. But this experience too left me inclined to define “PC” loosely. Unlike Macworld–a sister publication which is unquestionably about Apple products–our mission statement didn’t mention any particular operating system or company. I didn’t want anyone to think that our fate was tied to the success of Windows, and I always said that our readers were the ones who got to define what “PC” meant. Not us, and certainly not Microsoft.

TechCrunch’s MG Siegler has blogged about the notion of the post-PC era, saying a lot of things I agree with. He notes the rise of the iPad as a general-purpose device, and says it’s a “clear and present danger” to Microsoft’s dominance. He’s right. He also references my TIME column, and thinks, I believe, that by saying the PC was evolving I was taking an at least somewhat Microsoft-friendly stance. I wasn’t, really: I’d feel that way even if Windows evolved its way into irrelevance.

MG says I pussyfooted my way around the topic, and in at least one respect I’d agree with him: I didn’t take a stance on Windows 8, the upcoming version which will attempt to split the difference with the iPad by providing both a traditional interface and one based on Windows Phone’s “Metro” look. The fact is that Microsoft has only provided fleeting glimpses of Windows 8 so far, and I haven’t had any hands-on experience with it yet. I hope to come home from Microsoft’s BUILD conference in a couple of weeks with a Windows 8 beta; if I do, I may feel either that it’s given Windows a new lease on life or that it’s an ungainly mess that’s likely doomed. But for now, anyone who has strong feelings about Windows 8 one way or the other is extrapolating from incomplete information.

In the column, I also mentioned the notion of a “PC plus” era, as defined by Microsoft’s Frank Shaw. It involves tablets and phones being less useful than (Windows) PCs, and serving as “companions” to them. In another piece, I said what I thought of “PC plus”–which is that it’s a very Microsoftian notion that doesn’t jibe with where we are and where we’re going.

The very fact that it’s unclear whether Windows 8 is going to cut it is a healthy sign about the future of the PC. For years, Windows was such an unavoidable fact of life that it was difficult to contemplate any immediate scenario in which Microsoft didn’t have an outsized influence on the future of computing. (That’s how we ended up with the train wreck that was Windows Vista–a piece of software that would never have existed if Microsoft was running scared rather than fat and happy.)

Today, though, it’s entirely possible that Windows–even if it remains on gazillions of computers around the world–will begin to feel less and less relevant to typical consumers over the next few years. With the iPad, Apple has presented us all with an alternate take on what personal computing should be. I think it’s entirely possible that it’ll supplant Windows, and it could happen more quickly than any of us would have guessed.

But even if the iPad someday outsells Windows-based machines 9-to-1, I won’t talk about the death of the PC. Sorry, I’m just pigheaded that way…


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13 Comments For This Post

  1. Tom Ross Says:

    So by the definition that you just gave, why are smartphones not PCs?

  2. Dave Says:

    I completely agree, but right now the iPad is too limited in functionality to replace a PC. No visible file structure, itunes only syncing, no real multi tasking, very limited computing power , limited office apps. It can't replace all all purpose PC yet unless you are very limited in your needs. it does a few things very well, but it is not enough of a jack-of-all-trades to replace a windows/OSX machine yet.

  3. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    No, you are wrong.

    Most PC use is a Web browser, email, MS Office, iTunes, Netflix, Hulu. Nothing else. Most are running 10 year old Windows XP, which predates HTML5, MPEG4, RSS, YouTube, Facebook, iPod, and many more things we take for granted today. You take a user from that Windows PC and give them an iPad and they do MORE, NOT LESS. They still do Web and email, they have iWork for $30 and it is the best version of MS Office ever, they have iTunes and Netfilx and Hulu apps, but now they can also click one button to install a virus-free $5 iMovie or $5 GarageBand, and they install a native Gmail or Twitter and have a better experience than the browser. They use GPS-enabled apps, they go for 10 hours on battery, they start carrying iPad everywhere instead of using their Windows PC only at home in the evenings. They spend $25 and get 10 awesome games that are all better than the Web-based games they know. They realize they don't need 3-4 other hardware gadgets because there are apps for that on their iPad.

    Most people hate the Windows PC. They are happy to be rid of it. If you love your Windows PC, you are very much in the minority. Less than 10% of Windows PC users. The rest have a Windows PC because they thought that was all there was. Not a very loyal customer.

    And a Web server also has no user-visible file system, somehow it is still useful, right? Somehow, we get computing done with it, right?

    And finally, if you want a file system, iPad has hundreds of apps that provide a complete Finder/Explorer file browser with SFTP and WebDAV and Bonjour and so on, and you can send or receive files between the file browser and other apps, for a more traditional computer. So there is an app for that, also.

    There are also a lot of Windows PC's that are just running one custom native C app as part of a point-of-sale terminal or data entry terminal. These are being replaced by iPad and iPod touch because they also run native C apps and they are cheaper to deploy, require less training, and less administration (no viruses, no CD/DVD software installs, wireless administration.)

    So you are just plainly wrong. You can go out into the world and see iPads replacing Windows PC's, and you can see the Windows PC sales numbers collapsing. Last quarter, Aplle became the Buber 1 vendor by volume, HP fell to number 2 and announced they are getting out. Acerbic fell to number 3 and had a $250 million loss, their first ever.

    Harry's article is trying to get you to come to grips with this. I suggest you re-read.

  4. Robert S. Says:

    You insult that average computer user by using the same logic that Steve J. has told you to use…that we are too stupid for our own good and we need to hide things from the user. He insisted that we don't need 2 button mice. Now he says that touch and gestures is the only interface that users can handle….bullocks. Tell that to the Billions of people on this planet that have no trouble using a mouse and a keyboard….the small fraction of iPads that have sold in comparison to even the number of Windows 7 Licenses sold speaks otherwise.

    Also, pc sales aren't declining. The media has twisted this statistic in a big way. What is slowing is the Growth of PC sales, but it is still growing. Not surprising. Anytime you saturate the market, you aren't going to be able to grow beyond the maximum population on the planet. At some point, the growth of iPad sales will also slow.

    I own and love an iPhone and an iPad and I'm embarrassed that people like you mis-represent things so preversely. I love my iPad and am grateful for the revolution it has begun….that said, I have been following the Windows 8 tablet information and I am intrigued to see what they offer…if the new generation of tablets, be it windows or apple, or whatever are better than what I currently use, I'll probably buy it. Period….Technoreligiosity not withstanding.

  5. GDal Says:

    Microsoft hides files too. They hide the Windows directory, and the Program Files directory. You can view them if you want, but not without a warning or two, or without changing settings. And they started doing that with… Windows 95! It seems that old Steve J is just repeating what is already known by MS.

    To this day I don't have a two button mouse on my Mac… Yet, with a two finger gesture, which is much easier than using a right click on a mouse, I can access the secondary menus.

    God forbid left handed people should be able to easily use secondary clicks. A Windows setup for lefties means that they have to constantly be reminded by their computer that they are weird. It's not a right-click anymore, it's a left-click, but everything (including you) still say right click. At least with Apple, it's a secondary click or two finger tap, so no left/right confusion. I can't tell you how many times using a lefty's mouse caused problems, especially for remote desktop. Having to remember to reverse my clicks sucks!

    Tell me. Before the car came along, did people have trouble using the horse and buggy? And now? Mouse replaced by touch. When touch is the interface of choice, how many do you think will want to use mice? Remember, the world will continue long after you and I are gone.

    PC sales figures. Do you have a better information source than the media you berate for their reports? PCs are nowhere near the "maximum population on the planet" (6 billion vs 1.2 billion PCs), yet PC sales figures show the market is not growing. MS sold 4% fewer Windows licenses than the year prior. That seems like a decline to me. The current top PC maker is ready to sell/spin-off its PC unit. That's not an action taken in a growing market.

  6. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Correct Dave. Those who actually do stuff other than consume banal content need a bit more of a machine.

  7. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    The problem is, IBM stole the term "PC" and used it in their product name, even though they entered the PC market 5 years late, and even though it was Steve Jobs who coined the term "personal computer." Since then, Windows PC vendors and Microsoft have used this as a kind of propaganda. They say "The (IBM compatible) PC" and users hear, "The PC," and think it is the only one. They talk about the "PC era" and count back only to 1981. They calla Windows app a "PC app." It's propaganda and it is also a kind of collusion by Microsoft's hardware partners.

    So if you say, "PC," you are saying nothing. You should say either "Windows PC" or "personal computer," or "computing device."

    If you say, "the PC is dying," and you mean "personal computer," then that is not true. The personal computer is growing and evolving faster than ever right now. However, if you meant "Windows PC," then it is true. It *is* accurate to say that the Windows PC or the IBM Compatible PC is dying. Sales are shrinking, usage is dramatically down, they are seen as antiques by most users, and most are running XP which means it is not even controversial to say they are antiques. The hardware platform has seen no reinvestment and modernization because Microsoft siphons off all the profits, so the Windows PC has not yet even moved to EFI from 2005, they are using BIOS from the 1980's, and there is no plan to do Thunderbolt anywhere other than Apple, either. Windows PC's can't even sleep/wake right or do instant-on, it is a joke today. Most PC's skipped FireWire! Antique trackpads, plastic cases, terrible reliability, no Unix. That is why over 90% of the high-end PC market is Macs, and why Windows only gets to compete with iPad now, down in the $500 market.

    The problem is, this has all happened so fast that many users are in total denial. The Windows PC vendors ran downmarket to get away from the Mac and slammed right into the iPad at $499. But for about 20 years, guys like John C. Dvorak have been saying that if Apple ever did "a $500 Mac," it would kill the Windows PC. Now Apple has done a $499 Mac and it turns out they were right.

    Yes, there will be Windows PC's around for a while yet, but nobody is investing in them, same as Adobe Flash is still around but nobody is making any new content. These are legacy technologies only. After the Intel transition, a noted Mac columnist said "Windows is the new Classic," comparing running Windows in a virtualizer on top of Mac OS X Intel to running classic Mac OS in a virtualizer on top of Mac OS X PowerPC. Now we have users sort of doing the same thing when they skip a new Windows PC purchase and get an iPad and keep running their legacy Windows PC 10% of the time as "classic" while the find new iPad apps and so on and adjust to the modern age.

    Me, I am so happy to see Windows go. I make digital content. I need users to have a modern digital content platform, not a 1990's typewriter platform. Microsoft has made improvements in Windows 7 by adding HTML5 and MPEG4, but most Windows users do not have that even today. An iPhone from 2007 has both of those. They are the most basic requirements. HTML5 is the 4 year old latest version of the Web, and MPEG4 is the 10 year old latest version of the DVD player. Adding them only to the latest Windows in 2010 is too late by far. This is how the Windows PC does LESS than an iPad. Microsoft gave Apple this opportunity to own consumer computing with their lack of progress in Windows development over the past decade at least.

  8. JohnFen Says:


    “It *is* accurate to say that the Windows PC or the IBM Compatible PC is dying. Sales are shrinking, usage is dramatically down, they are seen as antiques by most users”

    Seen as antiques? Maybe where you are, but where I am (and I work in a very large, well-known, multibillion-dollar-per-year software company) this isn’t true at all.

    Pretty much everyone carries a smartphone, but I can count the number of iPhones on two hands, and I’ve only ever seen a single iPad in person. Ignoring development machines, which will remain desktop computers for years to come, the most common machine I see are Windows laptops.

    I should say that I am not a Windows fan, I dislike it rather strongly and don’t have any Windows boxes of my own. I run Linux. That said, I think your analysis is a bit over the top. Desktop boxes are not as endangered as you hope, and Windows is not nearly as bad as you state. The computer market is, however, changing — just like it has constantly done from the very start.

    Also, and perhaps this is merely because I’m a dinosaur, the term “PC” to me means “personal computer,” not “Windows box.” I have 8 PCs at home. None run Windows. To me, “PC” is a rough term that describes size & capability. The progression being big iron > minicomputers > PCs > laptopss > tablets > SBCs > PDAs/smartphones.

  9. The_Heraclitus Says:

    Correct. Different forms for different needs. Some people have low usage requirements and can get by with the new tablet PC's. Some even with smart phones. Most will opt for traditional PC's in addition and business almost exclusively so.

  10. Buffalo Says:

    A PC is a computer that runs software that is located on the local system using data that is located on the local system. If you are using software from the cloud, you gave up the "personal" in personal computer. If your data is exposed to the world, there's nothing personal about it. I have a PC, and I have a computer I use to access the Internet. The second is not a PC. People who only use a computer to surf the web, view video drivel, and clog up bandwidth with email don't know what a PC is.

  11. N8nNC Says:

    Terms for prior generations (mainframe, minicomputer, microcomputer) described the form or implementation of the computer. Jobs' use of "personal computer" clearly indicates his intent to change the focus to the usage model. IBM and Microsoft usurped/borrowed the term for business desk computers. I think "Business Personal Computer" is more appropriate. BPCs were hugely influential, but hardly matched Jobs' ambition.

    But when a usage model changes doesn't it make sense formthe term to change as well? Cars largely replaced horse and buggies, but we didn't continue to call them buggies. CDs replaced records and tapes, etc. I argue that the usage model of the iPad is different enough to warrant a new name. iPad will likely serve, and it may not matter much if it follows the iPod trajectory, since there'll be few non-Apple "iPads" to confuse.

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  13. robinmaster698 Says:

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