If there’s one meme I find more annoying than all the others that permeate the technology industry, it’s the contention that the traditional personal computer is dying. We hear it a lot, usually from analysts looking to make an impression, or vendors pushing virtualization or smartphones – anything but PCs.
Needless to say, I find their arguments less than compelling. Even with the computing power of a modern smartphone or tablets, there’s so much you do on a PC that they can’t – at least not comfortably. We’re certainly buying fewer PCs, although we’re still buying a lot of them. It’s more fair to say mobile devices are replacing secondary PCs, but I suspect they’ll remain the hub of our digital universes for some time to come.
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Brad Chacos also doesn’t buy the dying PC argument either, but in a PC World column he makes a compelling argument for why sales are flatlined: performance has reached a point where it’s “good enough” for most users, meaning they don’t need to upgrade as often as they once did, particularly if their needs (as are most people’s) are fairly basic.
This certainly rings true with my experience, and my needs are somewhat less than basic. I’ve bought a number of PCs in my days, and invariably after a few years they would slow down to a point where, to run modern software or even surf the Internet comfortably, either adding RAM or upgrading to a new system was a necessity. Probably every three years was the average refresh cycle for many.
However, five years ago I bought a mid-range desktop system running an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and a nice amount of RAM. It performs just as speedily today as the day I bought it, and not just for basic productivity tasks, but editing video and playing games. Accordingly, I have no plans to upgrade any time soon, unless the hardware fails.
In his column, Chacos argues that between many tasks being offloaded to the cloud and the steady improvement in processor speeds having levelled off, for most people a modern PC will meet their needs for many years, meaning they just don’t see the need to upgrade. Remember, most people aren’t power users.
The same is true for most small businesses. Unless your small business is, say, graphic design, then most of your users are probably focused on e-mail, office productivity applications, and maybe a customer relationship management system. You can go far longer between upgrades now than you once could, particularly if you offload some of your more compute intensive apps to the cloud — say, moving that CRM to a hosted model.
Processor vendors are still innovating, but many of the recent innovations aren’t game-breakers to the average PC user. Energy efficiency is important, but more so to enterprise data centre operators than my Mom. Multi-threading is great if you’re running a complex computational analysis, but it won’t help you check your e-mail. Indeed, software needs to be re-written to take advantage of multiple cores, and the software that has isn’t used by most PC users.
PCs are lasting longer, and this is a good thing. The three-year refresh cycle was wasteful, foolish and expensive. Too many PCs ended up in overseas landfills. Systems lasting longer are a healthy development – for the environment, for our pocketbook, and yes, even for the PC industry.