Sympathy for the Desktop – Playing PC Advocate

I think it is easy to forget how deeply embedded PCs are in the world.  I was in a crowded San Francisco cafe last week in the middle of the day. Every one of the fifty-odd seats in the place was filled with people working on a laptop, and every one of those laptops was a Mac. Once upon a time that would have been an interesting anecdote, but today I think it is just a sign that I live in a Filter Bubble, surrounded by like-minded people.

With the availability of the iPad Pro last week, the blogosphere saw a storm of “PC is Dead” commentary. I will admit that I am firmly in the camp of people who use PCs less and less. I have written before that I still have a laptop, but it is basically a Single Purpose device which I use almost solely for Excel. For most of my business travel now I only carry an iPad with a bluetooth keyboard. I find I just do not need the added weight of a MacBook Air. Nonetheless, I think that I am in a smaller group than many of us realize. For all the talk about the rise of mobile, there are still very large, important segments of PC demand.

(Clarification: For the rest of this post, I will use the term ‘PC’ to refer to laptops and desktops running both Windows and Mac OSX, unless specifically noted otherwise.)

Gaming

So much of the commentary about mobile devices comes from New York and California that we overlook all the places where that is not true. First and foremost is the gaming community. I say foremost because gaming is on my mind a lot. I only play games on my iPad, but in that I am in a small minority. Most people reading this will be familiar with the rise of eGaming, or video game as a spectator sport with a rapidly growing audience. If you look at the top games on Twitch, the leading eGaming viewing platform, it is clear that PCs are not dead here. My favorite iPad game Vainglory is very similar to a PC game called Dota 2. When Vainglory live-streamed its championship match a few months ago, it had almost 100,000 viewers at peak. By contrast, when Dota 2 had its championships a few weeks later, they garnered well over 1 million viewers. And there are many, many more PC/console games on Twitch with numbers like that.

Generally speaking, the video gaming market remains firmly a PC and console based market. Tablets are growing their share, and maybe Apple TV will see better gaming someday, but not today.

Governments

Have you crossed a border lately? All the computers in the world’s border crossings are essentially PCs (or even more primitive terminals). Go to any government agency and if they have computers (I’m looking at you California DMV) those computers are PCs.

This is largely a function of cost of the device and the legacy installed base of government-built software applications. I think this is highly unlikely to change any time soon. Maybe we will start to see tablets replace some of those border crossing PCs, but any change will be at the pace of government work.

Enterprises beyond the C-Suite

In a similar vein, any large corporation is still going to rely heavily on PCs both desktops and laptops. Admittedly, there is a growing trend among some companies to allow for Mac usage (e.g. IBM), but tablets and smartphones are still add-ons to the workflow as opposed to the center of work. This is not true of independent workers like real estate agents and other small business people, but once a company is large enough to have an IT department chances are they will focus on PC deployments. I know that the iPad Pro has a PC-class processor, but I am not the buyer in the IT department.

The Rest of the World

And then there is the matter of the rest of the world. Outside the US and a few European markets, anyone doing work is going to do that work on a PC, and really, on a Windows machine. Even for tasks that could be done on mobile.

Admittedly, there is growing evidence that companies in China are running their business on Tencent’s WeChat. So I know that all of this is changing quickly, but I think that people living in the US forgot how much the rest of the world still runs on Windows.

Where is this headed?

I think it is important to distinguish between growth and usage. Enterprises’ usage of mobile is growing very rapidly. But in many cases this is a complement to PC usage. There is no hard data that calculates the amount of time people around the world spend on PCs, but I think it is safe to assume that it is still a very high number. The odds are that if you use a computer at work it is some form of PC, and if you are not working in the Bay Area or at a US tech company, the odds are that you are using a Windows machine.

Maybe this will change some day, but for that to happen the nature of mobile computing has to change a lot. In theory, an iPhone with a wireless keyboard and a connection to a big screen can do almost as much work as a computer, but in practical terms very few people will do that any time soon, and it will be even longer before IT departments help facilitate it. PCs are still the best device to use if you are sitting at a desk and typing a lot on a keyboard. Messaging. Web browsing. Video watching. Those are going mobile, but spreadsheets, reports and presentations (to say nothing of code development and graphics) are still best done on a PC.

Reasons behind this – Optimization

This gives rise to the interesting question as to why PCs are so firmly entrenched. Looking back at the examples I cite above, I think the appeal of PCs is the fact that these computers can still be ‘optimized’ in a way that mobile devices cannot. Gamers optimize their PCs for super-high-performance graphics and audios. (And effectively gaming consoles are the extreme end of that PC optimization.) Governments and businesses in most of the world optimize their computers for cost. Enterprises optimize their PCs for use with large internal IT operations and custom-built software. So far, optimizaiton of mobile devices has been limited. There is a lot of exploration around putting Android in things like ATMs, set-top boxes, robots and digital signs, but those remain niche products (for now).

A second important factor is software. Much of the world still runs of legacy applications built for PCs, especially Windows machines. The types of companies and entities that have these applications are reluctant to change. That being said, this is one area that is slowly being eroded. Or more precisely, it is not being eroded so much as mobile and cloud applications are slowly growing up and around legacy software. Most new applications are being built for the cloud and that means they could be readily available on mobile devices as well. Someday, we will see that dependence on PCs change, but someday is still a long way away.

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