Will tablets kill PCs?

I have always been a fan of the personal computer. I worked all summer once to buy myself a cloned PC XT. I probably would not be a computer science researcher without the personal computer. It has shaped my life.

We may not remember, but the PC was a somewhat surprising disruption. You could explain the success of some early PCs (e.g., from Commodore) as game machines. But if this is all you had to go on, the success of the IBM PC was puzzling. It was not a very good machine to play games: it had minimal video and sound capabilities. It worked as a word processor, but it was awkward. And yet it soon became your PC, just like you had your car and your phone. It brought freedom. You got software on it to print birthday cards. You wrote your first novel on it. You could run your own business with a PC.

People have been predicting the death of the PC for decades now. For example, several corporations predicted that thin clients would replace the PC in business. That is, businesses would go back to having a few large well-maintained servers and people would use cheap, interchangeable, devices called thin clients to connect to these servers. The thin clients would require no software-related maintenance.

Unfortunately, the PCs kept getting cheaper. So the savings from using thin clients instead of PCs were not worth it. And, unlike a thin client, the PC could keep working when the servers were down. Moreover, the CEO has a PC at home: he does not want to switch to a thin client at the office.

More recently, traditional PCs were almost disrupted by netbooks. Though cheaper and smaller, they were still PCs. And they failed to gain enough traction to displace the PCs.

Something funny was happening in another market however. Phones were getting more powerful. The iPhone is just as powerful than a PC was ten years ago. Importantly, this meant that a whole set of mobile technologies were getting cheap and widely available: tiny cameras, super small CPUs, and so on.

So this made the tablet, as envisioned by the scifi authors for decades, a possibility. Apple was the first one to market it successfully as the iPad. Right now, we can buy a Google Nexus 7 tablet for $200. It has a 4-core 1.3GHz processor, 1GB RAM and many things that most PCs did not have even 5 years ago. Oh! Did I mention that it is $200?

So, I think that this time around, tablets will kill PCs. To be precise, I make the following prediction:

In some quarter of 2015, the unit sales of tablets will be at least twice the unit sales of traditional PCs, in the USA.

Greg Linden calls this prediction incautious because experts predict that, at best, the tablet sales will match PC sales by 2015. Indeed, for my prediction to come true, it is not enough for the tablet market to grow, people must stop renewing their PCs and come to rely on their tablets. If my prediction comes true, the PC industry will have begun a slow march toward irrelevance.

I even put my money where my mouth is: I bet $100 against Greg that I am right. The loser gets to hand over $100 to a charity chosen by the winner.

I should make it clear that I am not silly enough to think that I can meaningfully predict the future. But I also think that the analysts have too much confidence in their own predictions. Consider this beautiful quote for example (source):

Another software technology will come along and kill off the web, just as it killed news, gopher, et al. And that judgment day will arrive very soon — in the next two to three years, not 25 years from now. (George F. Colony, Forrester Research CEO, 2000)

As far as tablets are concerned, tech. people cannot imagine tablets replacing traditional PCs. Yet I see regular folks like my father forgetting all about PCs and using exclusively his iPad. I have seen people showing up at meetings with tablets for at least a year now… some of them just regular people who are not trying to look good. They genuinely get a lot out of their tablets. They have been frustrated with their laptops for too long. A lot of these people are decision makers.

As others have remarked, not everything is great about the tablet. You can write your first novel on it, but I would urge you to get a physical keyboard connected to it (and then it is no longer a real tablet). But PC technology has stagnated. All the faults PCs had 5 years ago are still with us: slow boot sequences, viruses, confusing configurations… and PCs have gotten less and less hackable.

I admit, the desktop computer is a good match for our office jobs: a desk with a desktop PC on it. It goes together. I don’t know how companies and governments can reduce their stock of PCs. But they sure can spend less money renewing their PCs. They will need to if they keep buying more tablets.

I admit that I am not quite sure how students will get by without a PC, but they won’t be using their PCs to watch videos or read in 2015. PCs will start to look like this old typewriter you have in the basement.

I also think that tablets are a much better match for retirees. PCs as sold by Dell are currently a mess. They are confusing and hard to maintain. Cheap tablets are a much better match.

Conclusion: I don’t know whether tablets will kill PCs. But if they do, this will be a big deal and I want to be able to say “I told you so”.

Daniel Lemire, "Will tablets kill PCs?," in Daniel Lemire's blog, September 10, 2012.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

12 thoughts on “Will tablets kill PCs?”

  1. I agree, and so does Microsoft with Windows 8 and the Surface tablets. I think the new PC replacement tablets will look like this, with and included foldable keyboard. As you point out a separate keyboard really is necessary for anything resembling real work. Folding it away behind a touchscreen when not in use combines the advantages of iPad (extremely simple use of most programs) and a laptop.

  2. 1. Thin clients did not replace PC’s for the same reason the cloud will not replace PC’s. Large corporations can benefit from private clouds, but it doesn’t make much sense for serious single users or small organizations.
    2. Tablets and smart phones will likely take most of the low-end PC market (those who have limited need for more sophisticated applications, like Computer Aided Engineering, higher maths, etc.)- mostly for those who want to surf the net, or only need limited word processing and e-mail, or are willing to limit their gaming to on-line offerings. More sophisticated gaming will still require high-end PC’s.
    3. Those who are of the opinion that PC’s (from any manufacturer) “…are confusing and hard to maintain” or are difficult to hack have yet to discover the wonderful world of Open Source. First thing one should do when purchasing a new Dell (or any other brand) is “format c:”, then load one of the Linux distros. Much less confusing, and easier to maintain. Since switching to Linux a few years back, the amount of time I spend on system maintenance has decreased to nearly zero (from several hours per month back in my Windows days), and the software is easily hackable. I am not limited to what I can do with my computer by “vendor lock-in”. A lot of commercial software developers on the high end are going to continue to push the Cloud because that is the easiest way for them to extract dollars per seat, but there are still going to be those who are not pleased with commercial offerings and who want more out of a computer.
    4. The “consumer” market for PC’s will shrink significantly over the next few years (both because of competition with tablets and phones, and because current offerings are powerful enough that one need not upgrade hardware every two or three years).
    So, the PC will not die, but the market will contract significantly, and prices will go up significantly. Successful vendors will have to start focusing on quality, not fashion. Or, purhaps, those of us with the need will be forced back into the mode of building our own systems from scratch. But the PC is here to stay. Just as the PC did not kill the mainframe, new technologies will not kill the PC. If anything kills the PC, it will be the manufacturers who rely on marketing studies to plan their future, rather than listening to their customers…

  3. Here in Panama in the electronics stores, one ALREADY sees tablets and smart phones dominating, with the PC’s stuck in the back, out of sight…

  4. My guess is that the distinction between phones, tablets and PCs will become a lot less relevant than it is today. Computers are becoming so cheap that soon the manufacturers will start putting in enough computing power for most needs to any device with a decent display. Not because the user would need such power, but just in case.

    Phone is the display you have in your pocket. Tablet or laptop is the display you carry around in your bag. PC is the display you have on your desk. TV is the display you have in your living room. You can easily access your files from any of them, and you can also plug in keyboards, mouses, external storage devices and so on to any of them.

  5. I think the tablet sales will match PC sales soon or later,but the tablet can’t kill PC.The tablet is more suitable for entertainment,while the PC is more suitable for office job.They will lead different market in the future.

  6. @Charlie

    New technologies often do not really kill previous technologies. People still ride on horses. But technologies do become much less relevant.

    I think that if tablet unit sales are twice that of PC unit sales, then, by my definition, the tablet has killed the PC as the dominant paradigm. Indeed, at that point, when you’ll surf the web or enter electronics stores, you’ll see tablets all over, and the PCs will be in the back, a bit hidden.

  7. One thing that the most powerful tablet still cant do is intense gaming. The PC gaming business shows no sign of slowing and you have to rely on an embedded graphics chip in a tablet whereas in a desktop PC you provide the high end GPU cards

  8. Tablets will never kill PCs. Some of the reasons:
    1. Luck of keyboard and mouse
    2. Small screen
    3. Not powerful enough to handle advanced tasks

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