What is a PC? In fact, what is a computer? Some market analysts and Apple predict that the next two or three generations will start asking those questions. For years, in no small part due to the downhill trend of PC sales, analysts and journalists have been declaring the PC to be dead. The problem which such overarching declarations is that it can’t be true for all cases. And depending on who you ask, that PC market is actually even more lucrative than ever before.
Everything is a PC but nothing is
It’s funny how some words and symbols have outgrown their original definition or the context they were born from. The floppy disk, for example, has now become a soon to be outdated symbol for saving files even when such media hasn’t been seen for decades. That’s especially true with the term “PC” that is thrown around a lot but can mean different things to different people.
It technically means “personal computer” and was coined to differentiate the large boxes that sat on desks (“desktops”) from the hulking cabinets that were supercomputers and mainframes. It was something that was used in a personal capacity versus a shared resource. In that sense, all our consumer devices today are, technically, PCs. From the traditional desktop on our desktops, the laptops we carry around in our bags to the tablets we use for watching or reading to the ubiquitous smartphone in our pockets. They’re all computers and they’re all meant for personal use.
Image courtesy of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Attribution
Of course, the PC has long shed off that broad definition and has come to refer to the desktops and laptops we use for work or play, often running Microsoft Windows or Linux. With that definition, it’s easy to see why many consider us to be living in a post-PC (even post-Mac if you will) world. And they’re not entirely wrong.
A changing landscape
The PC is dead. Or rather at least a part of it. There’s no use denying the numbers. PC sales have indeed been dropping year after year after year. It doesn’t mean that PCs are completely dead. It just means they’ve changed their definition yet again.
The decline in sales can be attributed to two things: the Internet and mobile devices, smartphones and tablets together. Ubiquitous access to the Internet and Internet services like the cloud has lessened users’ reliance on dedicated computers and hardware. Smartphones and tablets have further degraded the PC’s relevance by providing a more affordable device to access the Internet. You could say that Internet-connected smartphones and tablets have pretty much made PCs irrelevant.
That is, however, only true for the lower end of the PC market. In contrast to heavy-duty and expensive supercomputers, PCs were meant for the masses, and you can’t get any more mass market than with mobile devices. However, over the decades, the PC market has become so general-purpose that it embraced so many use cases that’s it wasn’t really possible to pin a PC down to a single or even a few. And some of those no smartphone can ever replace.
Sports that won’t make you sweat
While the lower end of the PC spectrum, the consumer desktop and laptops, is pretty much dead, the higher-end is, in fact, thriving. Early last year, NVIDIA reported that the PC game revenue in 2016 double to $31 billion over the five previous years. PC gamers were also forecast to quadruple last year. Of course, one might hold those numbers suspect consider what NVIDIA’s core business is, but it’s going to be hard to boast big numbers with nothing to back it up.
With their bottom lines shrinking, PC makers and PC component makers have shifted their focus to the higher end. No, not to the cloud, but to the arenas. E-sports arenas, that is. The gaming industry, be it PC, console, or even mobile, is booming. Despite some political maneuvering, it is becoming just as much a fact of life as the PC was not a long time ago. There are even discussions on having non-violent e-sports accepted into the Olympics.
High-end PC gaming requires high-end hardware. Hardware you will never be able to cram into mobile devices or even most laptops. At least not yet. With the gaming industry expected to continue growing along with the need for better hardware, it’s not difficult to see why some companies still see the PC market as a lucrative one.
Seeing and creating new worlds
It’s not just gaming either. We are also entering a new wave of computing. Like actual waves, it ebbs and it flows, but virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality are here to stay. And guess what’s going to power these experiences. Yep, high-end PCs.
VR and AR proponents like HTC, Oculus, Google, and Apple are pushing for more mobile versions of their PC-specific platforms, but, like with gaming, they can only do so much. It would definitely be dreamy to be able to setup a VR or AR experience anytime anywhere with your phone or a wireless headset, but limitations of technology, physics, and business say we won’t be seeing that ideal future soon. You will need a proper PC for this next generation of computing. And while some have tried to push the barrier to entry low, you can only push so much before the experience and the illusion starts to break apart.
The other side of this VR/AR coin is the power needed to create those experiences in the first place. While you can record videos, type documents, paint images, or even edit videos on mobile devices these days, the more sophisticated content creation still requires more than what phones and tablets can offer. Sometimes, even laptops have compromises that make it difficult if not impossible to use for creating movies, games, VR content, and more. For those, you need the power that only a proper PC can deliver.
Wrap-up: a post-PC PC world
The old PC is dead. Gone are the low-end desktops, the bulky laptops, and the short-lived netbooks. In their stead are smartphones, tablets, ultraportables, convertibles, 2-in-1s, and the like. But as long as markets for gaming, entertainment, content creation, VR, and AR exist, so will PCs. Those aren’t dead. They have, in fact, become more powerful and also more expensive. They serve an admittedly narrower market, but one that has more opportunities for profit and less competition from affordable smartphones.