Thursday, April 11, 2013

The PC market is collapsing. Thought from a commiter User

We have long known that the conventional Windows based PC is struggling to compete with Apple and Android devices but now even main stream media are reporting on just how dramatic the decline in PC sales is. I personally think that Microsoft have accelerated their own demise with the awful Windows 8 and that they could still buy themselves a few more years of support from their traditional power user base if they just threw out Windows 8, tarted up Windows 7 a bit an re-released it as Windows 9. However as someone who has been using Microsoft powered PCs extensively for almost 30 years I think it is useful consider what I still need a Windows desktop for and how I would cope if it were no longer available.

In Work:
Firstly I use a large multi-screen PC for my work. In my job I have to do a lot of content creation. This includes Word, Powerpoint and Excel  projects that would be very painful to do on a touch screen interface but that could fairly easily be ported to a Mac or Linux environment. It also include a fair amount of professional Engineering software which is not quite so portable. A lot of the functionality I need is available on Linux but converting the bits that aren't would be painful.  There is currently less available under OS X for the MAC but there is a growing trend among new software to support MACs. A lot of PC programmes can also be gotten to run in some form on either Linux or Mac using Wine.
In Work Conclusion: For the foreseeable future I am going to need a fairly powerful desktop computer with a keyboard and mouse for my work. If Windows goes belly up I could however migrate to another operating system with a bit of pain and perhaps a loss of some old projects. Linux would be my preference.

On my Laptop:
Once upon a time my job required that I travel a lot and I lived out of a laptop. I learned to hate the big bulky weight in my briefcase and I still get muscle strain if I spend too long lugging one around. Nowadays I travel a lot less and my laptop is often neglected.It is enormously frustrating to turn on a laptop after a week of not using it and then have to wait fifteen minutes while Microsoft downloads the latest patches. Sadly however I still need the infernal machine. I use it for meetings, I use it for presentations and I use it for occasions when I need to create content but will not be at a desk. I do have a tablet computer but it is not yet up to all these jobs (except perhaps the meetings). I find typing on the touchscreen a pain and the tablet is unfortunately not able to drive a projector. 
Laptop Conclusion:  I still need a powerful portable computer occasionally and today's tablets are not quite up to the job. I do look forward to the day when I can ditch the laptop though and replace it with something genuinely portable and lightweight. 

General Home Computing: 
I count at least 10 devices with an internet browser among the four members of my family.  It is not surprising therefore that portable devices have taken a lot of the donkey work of casual internet browsing, responding to tweets, Facebook and email. However my dual monitor desktop complete with comfy chair is still the seat of choice for serious browsing and not just by me. My kids will abandon their own devices and use mine if it is available. The large desktop spread across dual monitors is a huge attraction of course but it is also true that a lot of the web still works better on a desktop. Some of this will change as more websites improve their mobile offerings but there are many applications (for example shopping) where  large desktop is a huge boon for comparing lots of information side by side.
General Home Computing Conclusion:  We could do all of our general purpose computing on tablets but it is still nicer to be able to use a large powerful desktop with big screen. I do think the mobile web needs to get its act together though and stop making apps and mobile pages that only give you access to half the normal features of a site.

Power User: Photography:
My wife is an award winning amateur photographer and she has a serious desktop with multi-terrabytes of data  driving Photoshop and other image processing applications. I think these applications will always demand a powerful machine although she could switch relatively easily (albeit at a substantial price for hardware and software) to a Mac. Linux is less of an option because a lot of the industry standard tools are not available on Linux even though there are some open source alternatives. Photography has become very interconnected and her mobile phone already plays a big role in keeping up to date with the flickr and facebook sides of her hobby as well as its use for impromptu snapshots.  I could see tablets taking on a much greater role for processing in the field and and temporary storage but their hardware capabilities are still somewhat lacking.
Serious Photography: Phones and tablet have an increasing role to play but the serious photographer is going to need a powerful desktop or desk bound laptop for the foreseeable future. Windows is not required however as Apple are already well established in this field. Linux lags considerably behind.

Power User: PC Gaming:
My thoughts and desires for gaming are different for the past, present and future.

Dealing with these in reverse order I find myself quite unworried about the future of gaming: My gaming has already become quite platform agnostic. Most of the games I enjoy on my PC are already available on other platforms and indeed I use an Xbox controller for about half of my PC gaming these days. I am less enthusiastic about touchscreen games simply because my big clunky fingers struggle with touch interfaces but I do recognises that  the quality of games available on touchscreen devices has come on by leaps and bounds.  I guess I will stick with the PC as long as there are still interesting new games available for it and move to another platform if there aren't.

The gaming present is an interesting conundrum. While gaming companies are struggling and going out of business this is really a golden age for players. There has never been such a wealth of terrific game available for so little money. While his has touched on all platforms PC gamers have been particularly fortunate over the last few years in being able to enjoy an enormous choice of both AAA and indie titles for pennies.  I don't know if this situation can go on like this. Perhaps the commercial difficulties of the major games companies suggest it can't but regardless I intend to enjoy it while it lasts. Roll on Steam sales and Humble Bundles and every other fountain of cut price gaming goodness.

Finally there is the gaming past. I have a large collection of older PC games including many classics which I still enjoy dusting off and playing today. Will I still be able to do this in a post PC future?  I have already written at length about a possible obsolescence plan for pc gaming. Short summary: I will keep at least one PC in the attic along with my collection of game disks. Sadly this may not be an option for more modern games due to the rise of multiplayer and always on drm. When the servers get shutdown modern titles may become unplayable.
PC Gaming Conclusion:   I will continue to play games on my PC as long as there are games being produced for it and then I will move to another platform if necessary.  Enjoy it while it lasts.

EDIT: Overall summary- I and I guess a lot of other users are going to need a powerful desktop PC for certain applications for the foreseeable future although we will be buying them less often and in smaller numbers. Moving away from Microsoft Windows is more possible now that it ever has been before. I am not convinced to switch operating systems yet but more Windows 8 nonsense and I might be.



2 comments:

JThelen said...

PCs on the whole aren't going anywhere. The reason that the market is down currently is a somewhat complex issue, but one easily addressed IMO.

First, laying the blame on MS and Windows 8 is misplaced. While it's true that Win8 is not a good desktop OS, geared to traditional controls, that doesn't make it a bad OS; in fact, it's very good at being a touch screen interface by all accounts.

Second, MS and others need to realize that a new OS is not going to drive PC sales any more. Daily use software is going to drive PC sales, specifically when your PC can no longer perform adequately for daily tasks. Think about it; when do the non-savvy folks start wondering about buying a new PC? When their current PC isn't fast enough, or runs low on HDD space, or anything similar.

Third, and this is really the key point: we've hit a sort of saturation point when it comes to PC performance vs cost. It used to be that to buy a low end PC, you were buying several years old technology that had already been rapidly outpaced from a performance perspective. Now, however, that's not really the case, even in the higher end PC gaming system realm. I built a PC almost 2 years ago, out of parts that were nearly a year old at the time, and it's still more than adequate by modern gaming standards. The upgrade cycle at the bleeding edge has slowed to nearly a standstill; how much slower is it for the low end of things? Far, far more, as shown by the decline in PC sales.

So, once again, to the PC naysayers, declaring it dead, that the era is ended: Shut. Up. There are too many paradigms where mobile devices simply can't take the place of a modern desktop PC.

mbp said...

Hi JT, I agree that PCs are going to be around for a long time. The market for powerful pcs is going to be a lot smaller though and I don't think it is a given that Microsoft will continue to dominate it. The market will be smaller because a lot of the time users no longer need a PC. It will be smaller because as you point out the replacement cycle has stretched. I think Microsoft's ownership of this shrinking market is under threat because they finally have serious competition from Apple and from Linux. Moreover the rise of cloud computing has made it far easier to switch from one platform to another. In this context I think Windows 8 was a huge mistake on Microsoft's part. Facing tough competition in a shrinking market they should have made sure that the core base of PC users was delighted with the new operating system. Instead they brought out an operating system that annoyed the very people who are going to still buy PCs.