Will the personal computer as we knew it soon be history?

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MacBook Trash

Image via Jon ‘ShakataGaNai’ Davis

In a column posted last weekend, BetaNews’s Robert X. Cringely affirms that he’s mainly a Mac guy as far as usage is concerned. He just ordered four new iMacs for his wife and kids, but he expects these to be the last personal computers he will ever buy. Meanwhile, he’s spent $400 to upgrade his 2010 MacBook Pro with 16GB of RAM, a big hybrid drive, and a new, higher-capacity, battery, which he thinks should be plenty to satisfy his needs over the next 2-3 years.

Paris Lemon blogger and TechCrunch columnist M.G. Siegler also says 2014 may be the last year he ever buys a personal computer. Siegler currently has an iMac with a second monitor as his office machine, a Retina MacBook Pro as his main personal machine, and a MacBook Air as his work machine. He thinks he should streamline his computer fleet, but says he’s not quite ready to do so yet, and will probably buy one more computer this year, which he expects to be his last—the most likely update being a Retina MacBook Air when one finally arrives. He notes that his experience using computers for the past 30 years leads him to conclude that the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display is very close to being the ideal PC for him, but he prefers the handy size of the 11.6-inch MacBook Air . If only it had a Retina display, it would be the perfect computer. With one of those he would happily get rid of all his other computers, but he still thinks it might be the last traditional computer he ever buys.

Both Cringely and Siegler observe that one reason why people are upgrading their computer systems less frequently these days is that practically usable performance advances have slowed way down. Siegler says he really can’t subjectively discern the difference in speed between his three-year-old iMac and his MacBook Air that is only a few months old.

I’m noticing this dynamic myself with my new 13-inch Haswell MacBook Air feeling surprisingly little faster than the late 2008 aluminum MacBook 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo it’s replacing—or, more precisely, displacing—my anchor Mac, since the MacBook is still in use as a utility machine.

Cringely notes that while a new PC usually will be objectively faster than a three or four year old one, but if you can’t feel the improvement (i.e., if the change isn’t measurable in your experience) why change?

Good question. I don’t doubt that my new 1.3 GHz Haswell MacBook Air with its speedy SSD storage is objectively faster than the five year old 2.0 GHZ Core 2 Duo MacBook with its 4,200 RPM HDD, especially for executing tasks involving a lot of disk access. But for stuff I do most of the time, the difference isn’t radical (unlike with battery life, which is radically better with the Air).

Cringely maintains that this explains Apple’s main product development and marketing focus shifting from the Mac to mobile devices. He observes that if Apple sells us a new computer every five years or so at an average cost of $1,200, their gross profit margin of 40% works out to $480 in profit over five years, or $96 per customer annually. However, if they sell us a new iPhone every 18 months for, say, $500 a pop with a constant 40% margin, that calculates to $200 every 18 months or $133 annually, so Apple makes a lot more money selling us iPhones than Macs. No wonder Apple exhibits little nostalgia for the Mac.

However, I’m not yet convinced that the end of traditional PCs is close at hand. The Street’s Rocco Pendola’s take on the concept of a do-all tablet is about 180 degrees removed from Cringely and Siegler’s.

Pendola says Microsoft’s model of all-in-one devices is an answer to a question nobody was asking, and observes that desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones aren’t like motor vehicles. Most of us only have the money, time, space and patience to deal with one motor vehicle (I currently have five, but that’s just me), so roughly 90% of what’s on the automotive market pretty much works for everything most people require an automobile for. You only need one car or truck or SUV (if you’re sensible!) because they’re a big-ticket item in price, size, and ownership commitment.

On the other hand, electronics—including computing machines, gadgets and mobile devices—are smaller and less expensive, lots of users like having more than one, and Pendola likes that Apple thinks of its products as distinct, specialized vehicles for productivity, creativity and consumption.

There’s no need to roll them all into one, Pendola contends, observing that, “In fact, it would be pretty disappointing if that happened. My life would be less rich. But, more importantly, I reckon we would see quite a few jack of all trades, master of none devices that cut seemingly small corners on a whole bunch of operations, producing a weaker all-encompassing experience.” And moreover, “Even if there was something to this all-in-one thing, Microsoft isn’t quite as good as Apple at creating a need or some other ideal that consumers end up aspiring toward.”

Last week, Gartner Inc. released its latest 2014 market projections in the report: “Forecast: PCs, Ultramobiles, and Mobile Phones, Worldwide, 2010-2017, 4Q13 Update.” The full report is available on the Gartner website.

Gartner’s analysts note that the device market continues to evolve, with buyers deciding which combination of devices is required to meet their wants and needs.

GartnerMobile phones are a must-have for many folks, but the market is fairly saturated, and it will continue to grow at a slower pace.

Meanwhile users continue to edge away from the traditional PC (notebooks and desk-based) as it becomes more of a shared content creation tool, while the greater flexibility of tablets, hybrids and lighter notebooks addresses users’ increasingly disparate demands.

Ultramobile devices—which include tablets, hybrids and clamshells—will take over as the main driver of growth in the devices market from 2014, with a growth rate of 54 percent.

“Complimentary smaller tablets will take over from the larger tablet form factors, providing the added mobility that consumers desire at a lower cost and will compete with hybrids for consumer attention,” says Gartner research director Ranjit Atwal.

GartnerGartner says the worldwide tablet market is forecast to grow 47% in 2014, with lower average selling prices attracting new users. However, they note that consumers continue to buy tablets as an additional device that they carry everywhere, rather than as their sole personal computing device. According to a recent consumer study Gartner conducted in the third quarter of 2013 across Brazil, China, France, Germany, Italy, the U.K., the U.S. and Japan, over two-thirds of tablets were used outside the home for activities such as vacation or concerts, a pattern similar to that of smartphones, as smaller form factors are driving more portability outside the home.

Meanwhile, worldwide shipments of traditional PCs are forecast to total 278 million units in 2014, a 7% decline from 2013. Windows ultra-mobiles will take over as the main driver of growth in the devices market from 2014, with a growth rate of 54%, and the overall PC market will remain virtually flat in 2014 (0.2 percent) after a decline of 9.9% in 2013. Lenovo edged past HP to take the top global position in the PC market throughout 2013.

GartnerGartner’s consumer survey also showed that fewer than 8% of users would replace their current laptop with a tablet; the percentage who would entertain switching to an Ultrabook is almost twice the tablet figure.

Those aren’t metrics pointing to an evaporating traditional PC market, at least not in 2014. Indeed, tablets have a long way to go in gaining power, flexibility and versatility before they’re ready to displace PC workhorses for serious productivity users.

Nevertheless, my iPad is the platform I spend the greatest number of hours on in a day, and I’m not anticipating that changing when I upgrade to new tablet hardware later this year. I still prefer working on the Macs in terms of power and productivity support, but end up seduced by the use virtually anywhere, instant-on, almost never requires a restart qualities of the iPad.

Rumor has it with growing certitude that Apple’s got an iPad Pro in its development oven for release next fall. I like the new iPad Air, but the prospect (albeit not a lively one), of an iPad Pro that would be more than an just an upsized MacBook Air is beguiling. We’ll have to see about that. Nine more months on the iPad 2—even though it remains a reasonably decent performer—seems like a very long time to wait for a higher performance tablet.

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