The PC is clearly going through changes. Apple is surging and spent the last several years distancing itself from the idea (and name) of PC. Its coming iPad is more appliance-like and more dependent on Web service. While netbooks kind of bounced on a similar concept and now are more like notebooks, the coming wave of smartbooks suggests another try. Eric Schmidt, who I'm convinced is trying to destroy Google, popped up suggesting that the PC was dead in three years. While I agree with the direction, and actually wrote on the death of the PC model and the Apple-driven side of this, the timeline and comment reminded me more of how often we are wrong when predicting change like this.
Let's chat about why the PC is in decline but why it will likely remain a powerful player for the rest of this decade.
It comes down to the fact that, except for some bleeding-edge types, we don't much like change.
Death of the Mainframe: Circa 1980s
I was at IBM at the time that IBM itself seemed to declare the death of the mainframe era. Analysts and companies alike claimed that the mainframe was dead, to be replaced by client/server computing. Around two and a half decades later, the mainframe is still around and it is still one of the largest and most profitable businesses IBM has. Far from being dead, it is now a showcase for some of the most cutting-edge technology density, energy management, and cooling technology in the market. While client/server went the way of a heavy focus on price, eliminating much of the R&D budget for revolutionary advancement, the mainframe's strong margins allowed for changes that make the mainframe of today arguably more technologically advanced than its newer client/server counterparts.
Some of the most important and mission-critical applications in the world still run on mainframes, which remain at the top of reliability and availability performance metrics in the areas where they are in use. Given how profitable this is for IBM, it is very likely that a decade from now mainframes will remain both relevant and powerful in the market. They aren't dominant and won't be, but they aren't dead, and won't be, either. In a way, in a world transitioning to appliance computing, mainframes may be the ultimate appliance.
We often forget that change comes hard. The more complex the ecosystem, the harder that change is to make. The mainframe ecosystem was one of the most complex. As a result, despite our predictions, the mainframe is arguably healthier now than it was at the end of the '80s.
Back in the 1990s, the market moved to e-mail. It was clear that the death of the fax machine was imminent. But we're still talking about it today.
You can scan documents and pictures, in color, and transfer them electronically faster and more efficiently over e-mail. Fax machines aren't secure and bypass electronic document controls, making them ideal for intellectual property theft; a simple mistake can easily send otherwise confidential documents to the wrong fax machine with no ability to recall them. (Granted, recall doesn't work that well with e-mail, either).
Nearly two decades later, fax machines remain common, though they're clearly declining, and while they may be built into printer/scanners, they generally are favored for written document exchange, particularly where signatures are required. Their rate of decline is glacial. Back when I was forecasting e-mail deployments, they were also the key technology holding back e-mail because, for many, they were good enough.
Death of the PC Is Premature
There is no doubt that the PC is changing. A bunch of us put forth our visions for the future for Windows and while there was some disagreement as to whether Microsoft could change, there was no disagreement that it needed to change this platform for it to remain relevant. However, when you realize that the vast majority of the installed base is back on Windows XP and will remain there for at least two or three years, you'll realize that this is not a market that moves quickly. We measure its moves in decades. Eric Schmidt is likely off by a factor of 10 in terms of predicting the death of the platform. However, that doesn't mean that the PC isn't in decline. Or that, like the mainframe, it will need to go through massive changes to survive.
Developer interest is clearly shifting to things like the iPad, iPhone, Android, and even the new Windows Series 7 platforms. The father of the modern PC, IBM, left the market and the parts suppliers are vertically integrating. Microsoft, at least for the consumer segment in their stores and smartphones, is setting hardware specifications and changing who actually owns the customer. This suggests the PC is attempting to evolve. Like the mainframe, it may not be dead in our lifetimes. The question of relevance remains in play and clearly the iPad, smartbooks, and Google will have a lot to say about how relevant the PC is in the future. Still, the PC won't go without a fight and we really don't like change that much.
Wrapping Up: The PC Is Waiting
(Note: this could be a version of the warship lighthouse story.)
Iranian Air Defense Radar: 'Unknown aircraft you are in Iranian airspace. Identify yourself.'
Aircraft: 'This is a United States aircraft. I am in Iraqi airspace.'
Iranian Air Defense Radar: 'You are in Iranian airspace. If you do not depart our airspace we will launch interceptor aircraft!'
Aircraft: 'This is a United States Marine Corps FA-18 fighter. Send 'em up, I'll wait!'
Iranian Air Defense Radar: (no response .... total silence)
Suddenly, I want to toast a Marine. However, given the limited success of alternatives to the PC to date, the USMC pilot's response it so on point. Before we can forecast the death of the PC, there needs to be a real challenger. Until then, like that USMC pilot, the PC won't be going anyplace.