Is this the end of the PC?
That’s the question analysts are asking after the personal computer faced its fourth consecutive year of decline. Depending on estimates, the PC market took either a massive 10.6 percent dip in sales during the fourth quarter of 2015 (aka the much-lauded holiday season) or experienced a slightly less concerning (but still not good) 8.3 percent decline. The most obvious reason that PCs no longer dominate a tech market they, at one time, enjoyed a near monopoly over is the emergence of competitor devices like tablets and wearables. How we connect to the Internet has changed drastically in an era where we have more options to log on than ever.
But while many might suggest that it’s not a matter of if the computer will go the way of the Walkman but when, devices like the smartphone you’re likely holding in your hand while you read this article aren’t coming to replace the PC. They serve to supplement it.
In many ways, this is similar to the history of TV. When the television was introduced in American households back in 1927, the public billed the technology as “radio with pictures,” a fascinating curiosity that didn’t give them much they couldn’t get from their AM/FM device. Like the first computers released for public consumption, they had limited capabilities (with the image described as a “blurry reddish-orange”) and often very small screens. While the sets slowly grew in popularity following World War II, it wasn’t until color came to television in the 1950s that the technology became a staple of the household.
The reason that tablets have become popular is that they are perfect for lounging around the house—when you’re reading an eBook or idly browsing the Web to kill time. But these devices have a ceiling that the market has not yet been able to overcome.
After color TVs hit the market in 1954, an estimated 55.7 percent of American homes owned a TV—up from 9 percent just four years earlier. Whereas the radio used to be the center of the living room, back when Americans curled up to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chat broadcasts, the TV became the nexus of the home. But that didn’t kill the radio altogether; it just moved the device to the car. The television is ill-suited for driving—as watching TV would necessitate taking your eyes off the road, potentially causing an accident. Today, passengers can watch their favorite shows on their smartphones, but the radio remains the automobile’s dominant form of media—so much so that nearly every car is still automatically installed with one.
This is how technology works: It adapts to a shifting marketplace or it dies. The television has had to undergo similar changes in the past decade. Whereas even 10 years ago, a majority of Americans watched Lost and Desperate Housewives in front of their traditional TV set, increasing numbers of consumers are now watching Netflix and Hulu on their laptop, tablet, or their iPhone. Unsurprisingly, the market for television sets is also experiencing a marked downturn—with shipments sinking by eight percent in 2015. That’s nearly the same percentage as the PC.
But there’s a reason that the television won’t disappear from America’s living rooms: It fulfills a specific function that you’re never going to get from your laptop. Your smartphone is fine when you’re watching an episode of Law and Order: SVU, a crime procedural that relies little on a visual experience to keep the plot moving. In fact, you could treat it exactly like radio (by listening in without watching at all) and not miss much. However, if you’re streaming Gravity from iTunes or having friends over to enjoy the Super Bowl, it’s unlikely that they’re going to want to watch it on a screen the size of a credit card. Just because Americans are cutting the cord doesn’t mean that they’ll ax the TV set altogether.
The same goes for the computer: The reason that tablets have become popular is that they are perfect for lounging around the house—when you’re reading an eBook or idly browsing the Web to kill time. But these devices have a ceiling that the market has not yet been able to overcome. “Once you have a tablet of a certain generation, it’s not clear that you have to move on to the next generation,” said Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly back in 2014.
This led to an inevitable drop in sales in 2015—because everyone who wants an iPad likely already has one—but there’s another reason that the tablet has stalled on the marketplace: It’s simply a bad substitute for the laptop. While the tablet has long offered a “hybrid” option through the introduction of keyboards that simulate the experience of typing at a computer, it has an uncanny valley effect. In trying to be exactly like a PC, it illustrates why the computer will never die. Like the radio and television before it, it provides a unique experience you simply can’t simulate.
If the computer has to share the household, it’ll likely remain the hub of your home office—as well as your cubicle.
According to Business Insider CEO Henry Blodget, many companies have predicted the rise of a computer-free workplace (which might not be such a bad thing, as numerous studies have shown that sitting at our desks all day staring a computer is literally killing us). But that’s a naive forecast. “Lots of CEOs talk about, ‘Hey, I run the whole company on my smartphone!’” Blodget told Yahoo. “It’s because they don’t actually have to do any work.” You might be able to send work emails on your phone (forgiving the inevitable typos), but you can’t type up spreadsheets or prepare a well-researched PowerPoint. Relying solely on a smartphone would make your workday even more arduous than it already is.
If the computer has to share the household, it’ll likely remain the hub of your home office—as well as your cubicle. It’s true that the market for handheld devices is likely the future of the web, referred to as “Mobilegeddon” in a recent profile by Inc. But if Inc.’s Jayson Demers reports that “mobile traffic overtook desktop traffic for the first time [in 2015],” it might not be the epoch-annihilating catastrophe we think. Instead, personal computing will do what tech devices have always done since the TV and radio divided up American life six decades ago—learn to share the marketplace.
Nico Lang is a Meryl Streep enthusiast, critic, and essayist. You can read his work on Salon, Rolling Stone, and the Guardian. He’s also the author of “The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions” and the co-editor of the bestsellingBOYSanthology series.
Image via Van Jacobs (CC BY SA 2.0)