The PC isn't dead, we just don't know what it means anymore

Apple has positioned the iPad Pro, both sizes, to be the tablet that replaces your laptop, ruffling the features of both PC and Mac users. Microsoft has also been singing that song, though less harshly, about its Surface Pro tablets. And a good number of tablet, sometimes even smartphone, users have testified how they're able to not only live but even work out of their mobile devices. All of these different tunes seem to have similar chorus: "The PC is dead". That, however, is quite far from the truth, especially considering we might not really know what the word "PC" means anymore, let alone what qualifies as "dead".

A rose by any other name

What is a PC anyway? The word "PC", an acronym for "Personal Computer", has a long storied history and it is partly defined by what it is not. Its name traces its roots back to the early days of computer history and was used to distinguish smaller, usually desktop computers that could be used by only one person at a time from the hulking behemoths that were the mainframes and, somewhat ironically named, minicomputers of those days.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Eventually, however, the PC become almost synonymous with the software platforms they ran. Although in the early days of personal computing there were numerous operating systems, Microsoft's MS-DOS, and eventually Windows, would dominate that market. The term "PC", then, became the label that differentiated computers that ran Windows from Apple's Macintosh, a.k.a Macs. Back when Apple's computers used the PowerPC architecture, the distinction was easy enough to make between PC and Mac. Now that Apple uses Intels for its Macs, the line is drawn along operating systems and not hardware. While the PC vs Mac distinction still lingers, especially in the tug of war between Apple and Microsoft, the PC has taken on a new meaning today as well.

Once the "little brother" of the computing industry, the PC is now grown up, both in capabilities and in size. Today, PCs, and for our purposes even Macs, are contrasted with mobile devices, smartphones and tablets, to the point that you can probably say that a PC is a computer that is not a smartphone or a tablet (or a smartwatch for that matter). Usually, the divide also includes the OS that runs on those machines, though there always outliers. That current distinction is where today's PC vs mobile battle cries are made.

So what really is a "PC"?

So the word "PC" has really become a rather amorphous term that means different things to different people, depending on their OS of preference or when in history you ask them. Commonly, however, the word is taken to mean Windows desktops and laptops, which is a rather unfair generalization that excludes the likes of Linux or even Chrome OS. Somewhat ironically, Apple's marketing for the iPad Pro has pitted itself against Apple's own Macs and MacBooks, lumping these latter two with PCs on the same side of the PC versus mobile battle for supremacy and survival.

But let's try to be accurate with regards to figuring out what the PC really is today. Merriam-Webster defines the personal computer as "a general-purpose computer equipped with a microprocessor and designed to run especially commercial software (as a word processor or Internet browser) for an individual user." It also has a simpler definition that mentions the word "small", though by that it probably means "can be easily moved", which still includes today's desktops. Notice it makes no mention of hardware architecture, form factor, or even operating system. Notice that it also mentions "general purpose", which immediately leaves out servers on one end and smartwatches on the other. Notice, too, that the simple yet succinct definition practically describes even the things that we do on our tablets and, sometimes, even on our smartphones.

Personal computing, the action not the hardware, has changed dramatically over the last decade. Much of the things we usually do on stationary desktops and portable yet unwieldly laptops we now can do on our mobile devices, from browsing the web, sending out emails, and yes, word processing and sometimes even video editing. The growing sophistication of mobile devices is part of the reason why people believe the PC is dead or on life support (the other reason, as we shall see, is sales). You can do almost anything on a smartphone these days. Somewhat ironically, that actually turns our smartphones and tablets into the new PCs of the 21st century. But what about the desktop and laptops, the traditional PCs, that are always announced as being dead? Are they really dead?

Is dead really dead?

Again we are caught in a problem of definitions. What exactly do people mean when they say that PCs are dead or dying? Market analysts perhaps have it easy. They usually mean that sales of desktops and laptops are dropping like flies. But even then, "dead" might still be an exaggeration, or at least a prediction of things to come still decades into the future.

It's harder to define what "dead" means in terms of technology than it is to define what a PC is. That's because "dead" is a bit more subjective. For some, it means "irrelevant". For others, "unprofitable". What these desktops and laptops are not, however, are "useless" or even "unused". Desktops, laptops, Windows, OS X (macOS?), Linux, Chrome OS. All these technologies, both hardware and software, are far from becoming obsolete to the point that no one uses them. And for all the power that smartphones and tablets have today and will have in the near future, they still can't come close to these old timers.

Again, we kinda have to thank Apple for making us even more acutely aware of that fact. By positioning the iPad Pros as laptop replacements, people have become curious to try them out for themselves. And while both iOS and, in some versions, Android are on that path, they still haven't reached it. Multi-tasking, for example, is still a far cry from the Windows or OS X version. Peripherals is also a pain point. These can be resolved in the future, for sure, but for now, they remain to be bottlenecks and liabilities. And that's not even considering the software you can't run on these devices, limited either by the OS or the hardware. Even the Surface 3, for example, crawls when 3D modeling and animation apps are involved.

The telegram is dead. Barely anyone uses that. Fax machines are on their death throes, even though a few businesses still have one sitting in the corner. PCs? They may not be selling well anymore, but it's a big jump from that to "dead".

Final words - It lives!

Like some creatures in folklore and myths, PCs, the desktops and laptops of our age, will continue to exist as long as there are people who use them. Sales are decline, sure, but they will never reach zero, at least not in the next 10 years or so. Not until tablets, or even smartphones, have matched their functionality and general purposefulness. But when that time comes, they have become the new PCs.

Even then, the PC's life is far from over. In terms of form factor, we're seeing changes, like the new 2-in-1 tablet/laptop hybrids that are starting to proliferate. In terms of operating systems, we are also seeing transitions, from a predominantly Windows PC market to one with the likes of Chrome OS or even Android running the show. In the future, desktops and laptops may be relegated to specific purposes that require more resources than can be squeezed into a tablet or a smartphone. But then they become special-purpose computers, not the general ones that is defined by Mr. Webster. And special-purpose products always has a market, and, sometimes, end up being more expensive and profitable than general purpose ones.

But perhaps it is also time to reconsider what we really mean by "PC". The lines between PC and mobile are blurring, with each taking on qualities of the other. Laptops are becoming more portable, while tablets have become more capable. We're starting to see PCs inside living rooms previously dominated by consoles. Heck, Microsoft is even positioning Windows 10 mobile to be a PC, thanks to Continuum. PCs are all about personal computing, and nothing gets more personal really than a smartphone or tablet.