End of the Desktop?

The PC Plods Toward its Demise

At the trailing edge lies the good old, bad old PC – the personal computer that most of us have used for business over the past couple of decades. But is that PC about to drop off the edge altogether, to be replaced by more modern and – to many – less hostile technology?

The wearable computer is currently exercising people and their privacy concerns. According to ABC, Australian developers “have been swift to start work on a number of applications to capitalise on the new technology.” While some of these applications will no doubt be extremely welcome – especially ones that make life a little less difficult for hearing or sight-impaired wearers – many will be frivolous at best, invasive and offensive at worst. Even before the Google Glass actually hits the high street (well, online retailers – it’s doubtful this kit would be seen dead in anything so antiquated as a ‘shop’), an unprintably rude name has already been coined for those who want to wear it.

But, as with many recent tech developments, it is far from certain whether this in-your-face computing will catch on or be just another fad, another demonstration of just what could be done if the designers could find out just what the consumer really wants or needs.

Regardless, the cost of new ideas is dropping. Demand for PCs, too, is shrinking fast. At consumer level, use of disc-based data is dwindling markedly. “Primarily due to demand for physical media contracting faster than anticipated, mainly in the European region, the future profitability of the disc manufacturing business has been revised,” said Sony in a statement in May, at the same time as it announced the cost of exiting the PC business by attempting to sell off its Vaio brand.

Worldwide sales of PCs fell 6.9 per cent in the fourth quarter of last year, for the seventh successive quarter, recording what analysts Gartner described as “the worst decline in PC market history.” While mature markets were showing a tendency to bottom out, emerging markets in Asia are a disaster area for the PC, whether desktop or laptop.

“Although PC shipments continued to decline in the worldwide market in the fourth quarter, we increasingly believe markets, such as the US, have bottomed out as the adjustment to the installed base slows,” said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner. “Strong growth in tablets continued to negatively impact PC growth in emerging markets. In emerging markets, the first connected device for consumers is most likely a smartphone, and their first computing device is a tablet. As a result, the adoption of PCs in emerging markets will be slower as consumers skip PCs for tablets.” Many Asians and Africans have never used a phone landline, instead jumping straight into mobiles. Now they appear to be similarly hurdling the PC.

For the record, Lenovo is the world’s top brand with a global share of 18.1 per cent of the market – some 6.6 per cent up year on year. Second is HP, but that much-restructured company’s sales fell 7.2 per cent. Note that only 10 per cent of Chinese giant Lenovo’s sales were in the lucrative US while HP’s sales there represented 31 per cent of its total shipments. So in ‘rest-of-world’ terms, Lenovo is a much clearer leader (all figures based on Gartner’s Q4 analysis).

As workers spend less time in the office, that office itself must adapt to become a more integrated and productive place, according to a recent Gartner report that finds technology and service providers must enable IT solutions that help workers make the best of their time spent together, therefore improving efficiency and creativity. The trend is for tasks to drive the technology, not the other way round, says “Market Trends: Help Your Customers Prepare For a Mobile-Worker-Friendly Office Environment by 2018” – in other words, business users are increasingly demanding something that does what they want, instead of making them do what the software and system requires them to do. Are you listening, Microsoft? Windows has been in some disarray for several years now, many users actually wiping the latest version in order to put back older iterations of this once-ubiquitous system.

But what about serious computing tasks – CAD, for example, or finite element analysis, or crash-test simulation? True, your average iPad is not ideal for such RAM-rich tasks, but nor is the average laptop – such work is normally still done on massive Deep Throat style computers. The iPad and Android tablets have made significant progress into the workplace; many companies have found it easy to have apps specifically designed for them to use or to offer to their customers. Others give tablets for their field staff to use; as internet speeds increase, so does the usefulness of such a small and convenient hand-held device with long battery charge (compared to any laptop PC). Tablets are also relatively easy to ruggedise for applications in mines, for example, or in remote conditions. Increasingly, talented engineers and designers are using tablets with a stylus to input their ideas which are then wirelessly transferred to the whirring banks of IBMs in another room, or even another country.

According to International Data Corporation (IDC), 2013 sales worldwide were down even further than the Gartner data, by 9.8 per cent. “Emerging markets used to be a core driver of the PC market, as rising penetration among large populations boosted overall growth,” said Loren Loverde, Vice President, Worldwide PC Trackers. “At the moment, however, we’re seeing emerging regions more affected by a weak economic environment as well as significant shifts in technology buying priorities.”

What this report cannot measure, though, is the change in consumer sentiment. In many developing markets (eg India, Thailand) schools are buying tablets instead of PCs to teach their kids. They are cheaper, far more user-friendly and easier to introduce to young people. These young people, growing up with no need or experience of PCs, may not be so keen to take up ‘traditional’ computing when they graduate.

Below, you will see the IDS forecast for PC sales through 2018, indicating that although demand is dropping, it’s not yet off a cliff; sales of 291.7 million PCs is hardly negligible, after all. But these forecasts cannot take proper account of the changes that will take place in these four years in the usage of computing.

In May, The Guardian reported that England’s University of Exeter “has had to employ social media operators to deal with inquiries, because increasing numbers of students will not use email, considering it too slow and unwieldy. Apparently, opening Outlook Express takes up valuable milliseconds that could otherwise be spent watching Adventure Time on Netflix.”

If you have ever grumbled because your microwave oven is too slow, you may sympathise – and wonder whether the PC has any future at all at this rate.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

December 19, 2018, 5:10 AM AEDT