Old-fashioned PCs reach end of the line

Computer users can now access everything they need at their fingertips, as bulky computer consoles become obsolete. A whole new market is opening up as a result.

A new generation of personal computers is now on the IT industry's drawing boards. Robyn Beck / AFP
Powered by automated translation

The 30-year reign of the personal computer (PC) may be reaching its end.

Mark Dean, an IBM engineer, claims the era of the PC is definitely done. Having worked on what IBM claims was the very first PC in 1981, he believes they will gradually become secondary devices, with older models gradually being let go. Mr Dean says the PC is to join the ranks of yesterday's IT devices such as vacuum tubes, typewriters, vinyl records, cathode ray tubes and incandescent light bulbs.

Mobile devices such as smartphones are now leading the IT market, and some industry watchers predict Microsoft's Windows operating system, which powers the majority of the world's PCs, may not weather the changeover to mobile computing. This will create new opportunities for mobile hardware and software developers.

"The PC era is over and we are entering a new era of mobile computing," says David Cearley, an analyst at the research company Gartner.

As an increasing number of people own smartphones and mobile devices such as tablet computers and netbooks, the desktop PC is looking increasingly dated. In an era when many consumers already use their mobile devices for all their communications, having a huge box in their homes complete with a bulky keyboard and a mouse is rapidly losing its appeal.

"Rather than the PC being the primary device and the secondary being mobile device, mobile phones will no longer be secondary but are evolving into becoming the primary device," Mr Cearley says.

A new generation of PCs is now on the IT industry's drawing boards. These will resemble mobile devices in a number of ways and will have features such as touchscreen capabilities and integrated search services similar to those available on mobile phones.

The growth of these new PCs, combined with increasing global smartphone sales, will offer new opportunities for software developers. This will increase the already mushrooming global market for computer applications such as those deployed on smartphones. According to industry estimates, the smartphone applications market will grow to US$15.65 billion (Dh57.48bn) by 2013. The shift to mobile computing and the development of a new generation of PCs designed to support mobile devices will also create opportunities for hardware manufacturers.

"The key factor is that the design point is shifting," Mr Cearley says. "Rather than designing for the desktop experience, the focus has shifted from the deskbound experience to being anchored to the mobile device, which could be a smartphone or a tablet computer.

"There are far more mobile devices than PCs and the gap is widening fast."

Analysts anticipate that when Windows 8, the new version of Microsoft's operating system, is unveiled next month, it will have functions more closely modelled on those of smartphones.

"The PC is not dead but mobile devices will be driving the way. This is exactly what we will see when Windows 8 [is launched] in September [2012] looking a lot like Windows 7," Mr Cearley says.

But although consumers are deserting the traditional PC in droves, Microsoft's position in the business IT market is far more secure.

"For the vast majority of corporate employees, the PC will remain the primary IT tool and access point for the foreseeable future," says Richard Edwards, an Ovum analyst.

"Computers are clearly evolving, but today the applications that we use to run our businesses are PC-centric - even those targeted at web browsers - and will remain so for some considerable time to come."

Ovum also believes the corporate world will find it hard to ditch PCs in favour of smartphones and tablet computers.

"Technology does exist to deliver PC applications to tablet computers and smartphones, but a significant investment is required to do so," Mr Edwards says. "And just because something is technically possible doesn't mean that we should implement it."

The latest financial crisis also means that companies will be even more reluctant to switch to mobile phones. According to Gartner's research, Windows 7 may be the last Microsoft operating system that is installed directly for all corporate employees via large-scale deployments.

Gartner also reports that Apple's operating system has leapt in popularity over the past year and is expected to ship on 4.5 per cent of personal computers this year, up from 4 per cent last year. By 2015, Gartner estimates that Apple's operating system may hit 5.2 per cent of all PCs.

Although Apple has a strong hold in North America and western Europe, Gartner believes the fastest growth is likely to come from certain emerging markets such as the Middle East. Increased competition from rivals such as Apple, coupled with the financial crisis, will make it hard for Microsoft to retain its market share.

Nevertheless, rumours of the death of the PC have been greatly exaggerated. Microsoft PCs still dominate corporate computing. But Microsoft may still struggle to retain market share in a new era of growing industry competition and technological change.