The Rebirth of the PC

People are talking about the death of the desktop PC.  While Rob Enderle is talking about it’s rebirth.  I’m conflicted about both these stories.  I think they are missing the trends which will really shape how we come to think of the PC in the future.

Looking at the market now, there are desktops, there are laptops, there are tablets and there are phones.  We also have vague attempts to cross genre, with Windows 8 trying to reach between tablet and laptop, while IOS and Android reach between tablet and phone.  But this isn’t the future, this is a market still trying to figure itself out. I’m going to limit my predictions to a particular segment of the market – the segment which is currently dominated by the desktop PC.

The reasons we have desktops are:

  • They are more powerful than laptops
  • They are tied to a single desk, so that management can control where we work (and where our data stays)
  • They are more comfortable to use than laptops or tablets (at least for keyboard entry and pixel perfect design)

However, the game is changing.  The question of power is becoming moot.  Machines seem to be gaining power (or reducing power consumption) faster than applications are taking it up.  There is less and less need for more powerful machines.  And, where more powerful machines are needed in a company, it doesn’t make sense to hide them under individual’s desks.  It makes more sense to put them in the datacenter, allocating processing power to the people that need it.

In short, we don’t need computers under our desks, we need reasonably dumb clients.  Network computers.  Oracle could have told you that years ago.

That said, dumb clients never quite seem to happen.  And the reason for this is that is that smart is so cheap, there is in point in tying yourself down, limiting yourself to this year’s dumb.

Tying the computer to the desk is increasingly being seen as a limitation rather than a benefit.  It doesn’t just prevent working from home, it also prevents hotdesking, and simple team re-orgs. What is more interesting to companies are technologies which let them keep data in controlled locations – and again the same technologies which let people work from home are also keeping data in the cloud – but locking it there so that it is harder to misuse.  This argument for the desktop PC is gone.

Comfort is more important.  But by comfort we specifically mean comfort for typists, and mouse operators.  Tablets are going to cut into the market for mouse operators, and combinations of gesture and speech technologies will gradually reduce the advantage of the poweruser’s keyboard.  Text entry will probably remain best done by keyboard for the time being.  But the comfort aspects are changing.  My bet is we will see an increase in big, screens angled for touch rather than display, while tablets are used for on screen reading.  Keyboards will remain for people who do a lot of typing, but onscreen keyboards will be commonplace for the everyday user.

So – by my reckoning we will have (probably private) cloud data, applications running on virtual machines which live in the datacenter and being distributed to big screens (and still some keyboards) on the user’s desks.

This isn’t a particularly impressive point of view.  Its the core of a number of companies who are playing in that field’s business plans.

But what is missing from the view is the PC.  As I said : there might be big monitors acting as displays for clients, but clients doesn’t mean dumb.

Smart is cheap.  We could probably power the monitors running smart clients – and some local personal, and personalized, computing – from our phones.  We could certainly do it from our laptops.  But we won’t.  Because we won’t want to become tied down to them.

We will want our tablets and laptops to be able to carry on doing what we were doing from our desktops – but thats an entirely different issue.  Indeed, since I’ve suggested we might want to run some personal programs locally, it suggests we need something on our desktop to mediate this.

It has felt, recently, that the IT industry is moving away from letting us own our own devices.  That the Apple’s and Microsofts want to control what our computers run.  Some have shouted ‘conspiracy’, but from what I know of the people making these decisions, the reason is hands down ‘usability’ tied with ‘security’.  However, there is a new breed of entrant in the market which cares little about this usability thing – the Raspberry Pi’s and android dongles.  Smart, but cheap.  You – not any company – control what you do with these devices.  They are yours.  And in a company environment, they can quite happily sit in a DMZ, while they run software that gets full access to the corporate intranet.

The desktop computer could easily be something along these lines.  No need to make the devices limited.  No need to limit what they are able to do.  All you need to limit is their access to privileged data and privileged servers.  These devices become the hub that you connect whatever hardware and whatever display are appropriate for the job.  I can keep my keyboard. Designers can have their Wacom digitisers.

But you also make sure that these devices can be accessed from outside the corporate network – but only the things running locally on them.  This might require a bit of local virtualization to do well, but Xen on ARM is making significant progress – so we’re near.

This is my bet about the desktop.  Small, smart, configurable devices tied in with private cloud services, and whatever UI hardare you need.

But my next bet is we won’t even notice this is happening.  These devices wills tart turning up in the corporation without the CTO or CIO giving permission.  At first it’ll be techies – and the occasional person using an old phone or tablet as a permanent device.  But gradually it will become more common – and devices will be sold with this sort of corporate use in mind.  You’ll get remote client software preinstalled with simple user interfaces for the common user.  They’ll come into their own as corporations start mandating the use of remote desktops and sucking everything into the cloud – taking advantage of the same networks that the engineering services teams have been forced to make available for phones and pads.

The desktop PC will stay.  It will stay because we want more, better, personal control of our work lives.

When the network computer does, finally, make the in roads we have been promised, it will have been smuggled in, not ordered.

(Oh, and we won’t call them desktops, we won’t call them PCs.  We will think of them as something different.  We’ll call them dongles, or DTBs (Desk Top Boxes), or personal clients, or something else.  This is going to happen without anyone noticing.  It might happen differently from the way I’ve suggested, but ultimately, our desktops will be low powered, small devices, which give users more control over their computing experience.  They’ll probably run linux or android – or maybe some MacOS/IOS varient if Apple decide to get in on the game.  And while companies will eventually provide them, the first ones through the door will belong to the employees.)

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