Techdirt Podcast Episode 142: Who Still Needs A Personal Computer?

from the and-for-how-long? dept

As smartphones and other mobile devices have gotten smarter and smarter, they've taken over more and more of most people's general computing needs, and the importance of the classic personal computer has waned. And so for some time the question has been: will the PC ever go away entirely? That's our topic this week as we try to figure out who really needs a PC these days, and when and if that will change.

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  • identicon
    Vsem Yenovkian, 24 Oct 2017 @ 1:39pm

    Timely subject

    I think this is definitely something to pay attention to. I can definitely see the PC become outdated in the near future.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2017 @ 2:24pm

      Re: Timely subject

      Anybody doing real creative work, video editing, 3d modeling, mechanical design, music creation and editing, has need of at least one large screen, preferably more, along with keyboards, mice and other input devices. Also, try using a large spreadsheet, or doing complex text editing on a touch screen device.

      Tablets and phones are consumption devices, while the better laptops and desktops are necessary for creation, and detailed business work.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2017 @ 2:39pm

        Re: Re: Timely subject

        Not to mention those of us programming these smartphones/tablets. Not only are developer tools firmly rooted around keyboards (probably for good reason), but ALL smartphones and tablets specifically bans doing any development directly on those devices.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        JEDIDIAH, 24 Oct 2017 @ 2:40pm

        Re: Re: Timely subject

        Tablets and phones aren't even that great as "mere consumption" devices. They are small and very limited. For pretty much anything I might conceivably do with one, I would much rather do that thing on a device with a larger screen our better inputs.

        Forget about anything computationally intensive.

        Mobiles can't even do their own voice recognition.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Lawrence D’Oliveiro, 24 Oct 2017 @ 4:38pm

        Re: Anybody doing real creative work...

        ... which is maybe 1% of PC users (counting myself as well).

        Are there enough of us to sustain a market of 300 million new machines per year?

        Unlikely. Think more like 3 million. And as volumes fall, prices will go up as economies of scale disappear.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2017 @ 2:37pm

      Re: Timely subject

      Please post your stock predictions, too, so I can avoid them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      btr1701 (profile), 25 Oct 2017 @ 3:09pm

      Re: Timely subject

      I do a lot of work with music notation software and I can't begin to imagine how annoying it would be to try and do that work on an iPad or other tablet. And a smartphone? Practically impossible.

      I suppose you might be able to hook your portable device up to a keyboard, a mouse, a giant landscape monitor and a MIDI keyboard through a series of adapters and Bluetooth tech or other wireless tech, but why bother when a desktop computer will do all that nicely and much more efficiently right out of the box?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2017 @ 1:44pm

    This is a wussiefied topic of discussion.

    Yeah, sure, stuff has gotten more "smarter". However, anyone who thinks a smartphone/tablet can be actual direct replacement for a PC deserves that smartphone/tablet. These people also probably think that opening a bicycle shop/flower shop/whatever is the attainable entrepreneurial dream of a lifetime.

    Meanwhile, the rest of us normal users will keep the getting the job done on the equipment that works the best.

    It is really about expectations .. nothing to see here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2017 @ 2:08pm

    The death of the PC is the death of computing freedom. Future devices will be completely sealed, as passively powered as a calculator, bristling with sensors of all types, and constantly connected to servers run by powerful organizations.

    Pulling the plug will be a quaint notion.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2017 @ 2:36pm

      Re:

      If we let it happen, that is! Perhaps I'm an optimist, but I think there's a large group of us who recognize the importance of general-purpose computing.

      Anecdotally it feels as if the PC-building, digital art, game streaming and video streaming scenes are increasingly popular. There's a push to get young kids into coding etc. Anyone who wants to do anything other than merely consume content is going to need something more than a phone or tablet.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2017 @ 3:30pm

      Re: "The death of the PC is the death of computing freedom"

      Much along the lines of what's discussed in this podcast, perhaps we can imagine a future where the tablets and phones don't have these weaknesses for power users and society.

      But as they're designed today, we'll still need laptops.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    CanadianByChoice (profile), 24 Oct 2017 @ 2:14pm

    Totally off subject ...

    Yet another topic I wish I could peruse ... have you considered a textual version of these so that those of us that are deaf can participate?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      JEDIDIAH, 24 Oct 2017 @ 2:44pm

      Re: Totally off subject ...

      This reminds me of how it took generations of streamers before subtitles became a well supported feature.

      Several generations of streamers came and went before that happened. All the while, my PCs were happily chugging along being better appliances than the appliances.

      It also took several generations of tablets and streamers before they could decode anything but a limited subset of h264.

      "consumption device" indeed [snort]

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 24 Oct 2017 @ 3:07pm

      Re: Totally off subject ...

      Yet another topic I wish I could peruse ... have you considered a textual version of these so that those of us that are deaf can participate?

      Yes. The problem is that transcribing podcasts is crazy expensive. We're planning to experiment with some solutions, but none are cheap (or, rather, the cheap ones are useless). We set up the Patreon for the podcast such that if we reach a certain level, we'll start doing transcriptions, but we haven't hit that level. We may try to do something no matter what, but getting more support on Patreon would help us dedicate resources for that purpose...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 24 Oct 2017 @ 2:41pm

    Tablets and phones complement PCs. They rarely replace them. Because while tablets and phones are good for consuming *some* types of content, PCs rule at creating it.

    Anything that involves data entry - accounting or spreadsheets, CAD or paint, web or app development - simply works far better on a PC's keyboard, mouse and larger screen. Programming, even for phone and tablet apps, is pretty much exclusive to PCs.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      CanadianByChoice (profile), 24 Oct 2017 @ 3:18pm

      Re:

      Exactly. I do mostly CADD work for my job, but each of the projects has to be verified on-site - so I "print" to pdf, put that one a tablet (that has a stylus), go on-site to make notes, then come back to my PC to update everything. They are simply for different kinds of tasks.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    TRX (profile), 24 Oct 2017 @ 2:48pm

    A handheld device with a tiny screen, crummy audio, and a risible method of entering text would be no computer at all, as far as what I do.

    I have five feet of desktop, which is now cramped enough I'll be adding a fourth monitor at the next upgrade. And I use a thirty-year-old IBM PC/AT-339 keyboard, larger and heavier than a modern laptop computer, designed specifically for typing.

    And it's all mine, not a terminal into someone's walled-garden Android or Apple ecosystem.

    The difference between my desktop and your "handheld device" is similar to the difference between a Cadillac CTS-V and a pogo stick. Sure, your pogo stick is a "vehicle", but your'e not going far with it.

    Desktop sales are down? Sure, and they'll be falling for a while. Most everyone who wants one has one already, and they last for a long time. Meanwhile, millions of people who had no real use for a computer other than Facebook and AIM can do that on their phones.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DannyB (profile), 24 Oct 2017 @ 3:00pm

    Desktop "workstations" will be around for a long time

    A setup with one or several large monitors, a comfortable keyboard and mouse will be around for a long time.

    That doesn't mean it will be a PC in the classic sense.

    The "PC" box may be replaced with a Docking device for a mobile phone. You can walk up to any desktop workstation and insert your device and use it. At a hotel. At the library. In your home. At your work.

    The desktop workstation setup is just too useful and productive to be replaced by a tablet for some uses. Especially some work uses. Software Development for example. But other business applications as well.

    Not to down play tablets and phones. I am a big believer that for many people those are all they need. Most of the time in my personal life when not at the office I only need my phone and/or a tablet. But I still have a desktop PC at home that I use sometimes.

    When I need to do serious work, at home or at the office, for my employment, or my own fun projects, I use a nice dual monitor set up with a PC with 32 GB RAM, and SSD. (And yes, employer buys good equipment at work too.) Once you use it you're spoilt and won't go back. But someday the device in your pocket will have this much power.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Oct 2017 @ 7:40am

      Re: Desktop "workstations" will be around for a long time

      Maybe someday, but not today. Or in the near future. For smart devices to replace PCs, they need a large increase in battery life. Currently that means a bigger battery and that's exactly what people don't want. See also the limits of miniaturization and increase in power consumption (and energy lost to heat) required to compensate for the physical size reduction.

      Why? Because using any device like that requires a lot more power than what it consumes by just periodically checking your email inbox, Facebook notifications, or active call status. Try using your web browser constantly from a full charge on a regular basis. Your device's battery life will take a nose dive. Now try and think about the number of recharge cycles it would take to do 3D rendering or video encoding on a regular basis.

      Until you can get the same battery life that something like a chromebook gets with casual usage, when doing power consuming tasks like 3D rendering or video encoding, the PC isn't going anywhere. Especially given that the last thing you'd want during a long video encoding session is for the device's battery to die with 2 minutes left in the encoding.

      Not to mention the low power consumption requirements also means slower processing to conserve power. 3D rendering and video encoding is a full throttle task. The amount of computation power you throw at it determines the amount of time it takes to complete, and the quality of the result. As such most of these tasks peg their CPU cores at 100% constantly until the job is done (which may take hours or even days), which is something a modern smart device will only be able to do for about 15 minutes before the battery runs out of power.

      So, yeah the PC may get replaced one day with a device in your pocket, but short of a sudden breakthrough in battery capacity or reduction in power consumption for mobile devices, it's not worth betting the farm on.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        DannyB (profile), 25 Oct 2017 @ 10:37am

        Re: Re: Desktop "workstations" will be around for a long time

        I'm not disagreeing with you, but we are both talking about the future. I expect technology to improve, even though I expect us to live in something worse than a Sci Fi dystopia.

        What I was describing was "someday". In the future. Today's pocket devices were unthinkable (except as fiction) in the 1990's, even early 2000's. Why won't that also be true a decade or so in the future?

        Let me give you the list of reasons why these crazy automobile thingies will NEVER replace the tried and true, beautiful horse and buggy.

        Automobiles are noisy. Smelly. Difficult to start. You can even break your arm crank starting if the engine backfires while you are cranking. Automobiles are unreliable. And worst of all . . . they frighten the horses! So don't expect this Automobile thing to ever take off. It's just a fad.

        The fact is, automobiles had a lot of problems. But if you were looking forward, you could expect them to get better and better.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Oct 2017 @ 4:22pm

    Phones could be "personal computers"

    Hardware-wise, phones and tablets are way more powerful that what we were calling "personal computers" 10 or 20 years ago. Even the display resolution is higher despite being tiny. If the owners had real control over these, instead of Apple/Google/carriers, we could call them "personal computers". Ubuntu even tried to fund/make one with a dock; with that you'd be able to attach KB, mouse, displays, and storage, at which point it's really (not just technically) a computer.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Alan, 24 Oct 2017 @ 4:50pm

    PCs are Minivans...

    ...and that's a compliment.

    People, particularly SUV owners, like to make fun of the minivan because of its wimpy image, in spite of the fact that minivans are cheaper, more fuel efficient, and safer than SUVs. A minivan is better than an SUV in almost every way, other than 4WD.

    Desktop PCs are better than mobile devices (including laptops) in productivity-per-unit-time. Their cost of ownership is lower than a phone (and some tablets). And they are a lot more privacy-friendly than Android/iOS devices.

    To be sure, phones can do lots of things that PCs cannot. But the PC rules the roost when you want to create instead of consume. The PC is no more going away than the smartphone is.

    Incidentally, for when you do want to consume, research generally shows that paper beats a tablet. You can Google that.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    nomobile, 24 Oct 2017 @ 6:22pm

    no way

    there are those who love to tell "us" that we don't know what we need, so if we come out and say the days of the pc is doomed - you need to believe it.. . if you would all just stop buying them and embrace the "mobile" stuff.. all the things you are complaining about will be fixed. the longer you are clinging on to this outdated stuff is just prolonging our suffering..

    NOT!! games, programming, cad, data entry, all the stuff mentioned here are almost necessary to have a full size screen, and the full size inputs. you are just not gonna do this on a crappy mobile phone (or ratty ass tablet)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Aaron Walkhouse (profile), 24 Oct 2017 @ 6:44pm

    When it breaks…

    … I can fix it. ‌ ;]

    Upgrades also extend it's usable lifespan so
    that it's still useful for decades to come.
    I'm using a 13-year-old PC right now.

    Laptops are disposable, thus not worth my time or money.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      mermaldad (profile), 25 Oct 2017 @ 4:54am

      Re: When it breaks…

      I guess I didn't get the message about disposible laptops. I have fixed and upgraded multple laptops and smartphones. Obviously a desktop is more designed for maintenance and upgrade, but it is a myth that laptops and especially phones are not openable.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Aaron Walkhouse (profile), 25 Oct 2017 @ 6:54am

        It takes special effort…

        …and sometimes special parts/tools only us nerds can find.

        Not only that, most refuse to start once the battery dies,
        and often those batteries are unavailable after a few years.

        Those things are designed to be replaced. ‌ PCs to be kept.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Rekrul, 25 Oct 2017 @ 9:12am

        Re: Re: When it breaks…

        I guess I didn't get the message about disposible laptops. I have fixed and upgraded multple laptops and smartphones. Obviously a desktop is more designed for maintenance and upgrade, but it is a myth that laptops and especially phones are not openable.

        The thing is that outside of a few mostly universal parts like the hard drive, optical drive and maybe the CPU, there's not much you can upgrade on a laptop. You can't change the graphics or the sound hardware, you can't add expansion cards to them, etc. Yes, you can add some stuff via USB, but who wants a laptop with a bunch of other stuff hanging off it?

        I've never really owned a laptop. A friend gave me a Sony Vaio which developed problems shortly after, so I never really got to use it. Someone else gave me an old Dell laptop which had stopped working. I never did figure out what was wrong with it. I found a broken laptop in the trash (the hinge was destroyed) that amazingly still functioned. I was going to repair it, but the next time I plugged it in, that machine no longer worked. I found an IBM Thinkpad in the trash, which looked like it was in mint condition. It didn't work. Maybe I've just had bad luck, but it seems like laptops go bad a lot more often than desktops.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    mermaldad (profile), 25 Oct 2017 @ 5:04am

    Obsolescence from another direction.

    The usuals discussed improved phone hardware capabilities and better phone software as hastening the death of the desktop/laptop. I think they missed another factor. As A.I. advances, the nature of our work will change. Even for creative work, the ability to express your ideas without many of the things that are particularly suited to laptops/desktops will be de-emphasized. When? I hestate to make a prediction, but it will be sooner than most people think.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Oct 2017 @ 5:58am

      Re: Obsolescence from another direction.

      Even for creative work, the ability to express your ideas without many of the things that are particularly suited to laptops/desktops will be de-emphasized.

      Except for the use of multiple large monitors, and specialized input devices like graphics tablets and 3d mice etc. Also, touch screens are not well suited to accurate work, partly because your hand can obscure what you are targeting. They work reasonable well when the target is an icon, but much less well when the target is a line or point on the screen.

      Also, note that a vertical surface is not good for touch input, and horizontal surface is not good for looking at. Separating input and display devices allow both to be placed for good ergonomics. Voice cannot always substitute for a pointing device, (or touch action), i.e the afore mentioned points and line. A.I does not help, when you cannot easily describe you intent without a pointing device, i.e. selecting those line and points etc.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 25 Oct 2017 @ 9:31am

    I hate to say it, but from my own personal experience, most people don't actually need a computer. All the average person uses it for is browsing the internet and reading/sending email. Maybe they play a couple small games, but that's about it. They really have no idea or interest in what else it can do. I've installed FPS and racing games on various people's computers and they never play them. I've installed emulators and thousands of games and they play maybe one game a couple times and then never touch it again. I've shown them easy to use paint programs and they never use them, even when they have a need for such a program. I've offered them text editors and word processors, but they never type anything larger than a 3-4 line email. They don't know what a Zip file is or what to do with it. They don't know how to install and configure a program. The computer is just an internet machine for them.

    Granted, I'm not exactly a "power user" myself, but I do use my system for more than the average person and I'd hate to see traditional computers get phased out in favor of small, proprietary systems like the iPhone.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 25 Oct 2017 @ 10:07am

      Re:

      "All the average person uses it for is browsing the internet and reading/sending email"

      They are not seeking employment ?
      They do not need access to their 401K ?
      They do not need to interface with their local government ?
      ... building permits, researching ordinances, ....

      And these are not things only "power users" do. I'm sure there many more I did not think of a the moment.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 25 Oct 2017 @ 11:09am

        Re: Re:

        You give a list of things which can all be done by browsing the Internet. A web browser is all they will really use.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 25 Oct 2017 @ 12:48pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          seeking employment
          access to their 401K
          interface with their local government (building permits, researching ordinances)

          Those things listed are not considered to be "browsing" or "surfing".

          Just because an application is commonly referred to as a "browser" does not mean that is all one is allowed to do with it.

          Does your "browser" support FTP? Can you get other non http sources from your phone without yet another app?

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Rekrul, 26 Oct 2017 @ 6:19pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            Those things listed are not considered to be "browsing" or "surfing".

            Just because an application is commonly referred to as a "browser" does not mean that is all one is allowed to do with it.

            Fine, I should have said that all most people use a computer for is accessing the internet, almost exclusively with a web browser.

            Does your "browser" support FTP? Can you get other non http sources from your phone without yet another app?

            The average user doesn't have the faintest clue what an FTP site is or why they'd want to access one. The closest they come to FTP is viewing an FTP site directory in their web browser and thinking it's just a plain looking web site.

            99% of people today don't even use a dedicated email client (and wouldn't know how to set one up if their lives depended on it). They all use webmail. And to show you the level of cluelessness, I've actually had people ask me if they bought a new computer would they be able to move all their email over to it. I try to explain to them that their email isn't on their computer, it's stored on a website that they access from their computer and all I get is a blank look of non-comprehension.

            Someone I know somehow screwed up and erased a small Yahtzee game that was on their laptop, and which was about the only game they ever played. I had backed it up for just such an occasion. I didn't have an installer for it (not that it would have mattered), just the game directory. No problem, right? Just email them a Zipped copy, they unzip it and drag the EXE file to the desktop while holding the Alt key to make an icon. Presto, should take about a minute, right? I spent over two hours on the phone before they gave up. They brought the laptop over the next day and I did it in about 30 seconds. They were amazed and even asked how I had learned to be such an expert with computers. [insert eye-roll emoticon here]

            Watch any emulator tutorial on YouTube. At least half the video is spent showing people how to download the emulator, unzip the file and copy a BIOS file into the proper directory. And you still have people in the comments who are confused.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 25 Oct 2017 @ 11:31am

    My tablet is fine for viewing cat videos. But even something as simple as calling someone an idiot on my favorite website is much harder than it is on my laptop. Especially if I'm also taking notes on a Word document, or entering stuff on a spreadsheet while I'm insulting people. My tablet isn't even close to replacing my laptop.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Steve, 25 Oct 2017 @ 12:30pm

    Layman here. I keep my PC because:
    1. Mature input technology
    2. Ability to keep my data here, and not in the cloud
    3. Ability to interface with other technologies
    4. More power for both gaming and browsing
    5. Ability to modify, upgrade, and repair
    6. Ability to display a complete web page
    7. Ability to drive a large hi-def display
    8. Slightly better backwards compatibility.
    I'm sure there's more, but as the house IT guy by default, a PC is easiest to use to keep things going.
    What worries me is the dearth of new OS and browsers for PC. Now that Microsoft has taken a dump on that market, I'll probably be moving to Linux. Thought I'd gotten away from UNIX based systems in college.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Aaron Walkhouse (profile), 25 Oct 2017 @ 7:00pm

    Here's another, critically important feature of PCs:

    You can push away from it and go do something else.

    When I'm out and about I'm never stumbling into traffic
    or becoming easy, oblivious bait for muggers and thieves. ‌ ‌ ;]

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Oct 2017 @ 11:50am

    Samsung has started this in a usable way with the Dex Station. There have been other systems to do this, but the Dex and the software that turns the phone into a normal windows type environment would take care of most of what I do. Especial once more Apps catch up. The only cases that wont work that I can think of are some games that need a high power video card, multi monitor uses, or anything else that takes high end equipment. And some of that can be taken care of with a docking station that has extra hardware in it for those particular uses.

    But as I said I most of what I do, and I suspect what most people do, will fit perfectly into a Dex type system. I predict those will become much more common soon. I would even predict a future where a standard version of those stations are common and you just plug your phone in where you need to work instead of using a laptop. For example what if hotels had a monitor keyboard and mouse that I could plug my phone into and get to work, play, or whatever. Or stations at coffee shops that you could plug into and get some real work done.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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