The industry has been busy forecasting the PC's death.
Tablet sales are on the rise, and PC sales have continued their decline, leading to this "death of the PC" mantra. Certainly there's some evidence to back up the dire predictions. The PC is a mature platform, having been around in something close to its current form for the past 30 years. Plus, it’s absolutely true that PC sales are declining. According to Gartner, global PC sales fell 10 percent in 2013. The failure of Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 to spur new PC sales further fueled the fire. Tablets and smartphones are apparently the new heir apparent, and it’s also true that the growth of the tablet market is significant. Gartner is predicting worldwide tablet sales to grow 53.4 percent this year. Does that mean database applications of the future will be running on tablets and smartphones?
Related: "Planning for a Post-PC World"
Are PCs Dying?
I think it’s safe to say that tablets and smartphones aren't going to replace PCs any time soon, in spite of Microsoft’s Windows 8 mulligan. And let’s face it: Windows 8 did as much to hurt PC sales as the tablet ever did. But that’s a different story. There are several reasons for thinking that the PC is far from dead. Although there's definitely overlap on either side of the equation, tablets and PCs tend to go to separate markets. Tablets are lower in cost, and they're selling more in the consumer space, where you’re always going to see bigger sales numbers. Meanwhile, PCs are primarily going to businesses, where they're used to run any number of Windows applications.
These factors boil down to the difference between content consumption and content creation. The tablet is a great device for information consumption, but when it comes to content creation, the tablet can’t touch the PC. Business units also typically have a much longer lifecycle than low-cost consumer devices, which means businesses deal with a slower replacement cycle. And as a quick reality check, it’s important to consider that although the PC market has declined, it’s still far larger than the tablet market. PC shipments for this year are estimated at 303 million units, whereas tablets shipments are estimated at 184 million units. Declining? Yes. Dead? No so much.
Apps vs. Applications
The real clincher in this argument isn’t in the sales numbers; it’s the question of apps versus applications. For the sake of simplicity, when I refer to apps I’m talking about touch-enabled programs that run on tablets such as the Apple iPad and the Microsoft Surface, and when I use the term applications I’m talking about traditional keyboard-and-mouse-oriented programs that run on desktops or laptops (the vast majority of which are Windows applications, but Mac applications also fit into this category).
Apps are simple and focused. They're designed for a good touch experience and have very few components on the screen. Apps make sense on smartphones and tablets, both of which have limited screen size and system resources. However, they make far less sense on a PC, and that’s where Microsoft and Windows 8 went wrong. PCs are an entirely different animal, with much more screen real estate and processing power. It makes no sense to try to constrain those machines to running simple apps that are designed for tiny screens.
Today, most desktop PCs have monitors in excess of 20 inches wide, along with powerful multicore processors and typically 4GB to 8GB of RAM. PCs were built to run multiple powerful, complex applications that use larger windows and more interface components. That’s what they do best. Even more important is the fact that these applications are core to almost all businesses. Moving away from a line-of-business (LOB) application that is used to address a fundamental business problem is very difficult, especially when there’s no compelling reason to move. That fact alone will cement Windows applications (and the PC along with them) in businesses for some time to come.
One Future, Many Devices
With a nod to Mark Twain, the rumors of the PC's death have been greatly exaggerated. I do believe the device market is both maturing and expanding, but I don’t see any viable replacement for the PC on the horizon. The apps that run on the iPhone/iPad or Windows Phone/Windows 8 simply don't have the capabilities of Windows applications. They're not designed that way! Apps are very suitable for content consumption on small devices. The PC has supported a far greater level of complexity for the past 20 years. The future is certain to be a multi-device explosion, but the PC is going to be one of those devices.