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The death of the PC: real or exaggerated?

Should feds be worried that desktop computers are on the way out? Should administrators tasked with buying new government PCs start to think in terms of tablets and smart phones instead?

Back when people of a certain age began working in government, a typewriter was one of the most common and necessary tools inside a lot of offices. Over the years the government bought fewer and fewer of them, however, and as the old ones wore out, they weren’t replaced. These days, young, new government employees may not have even seen a real typewriter. A tool that was considered indispensable is now completely forgotten. Could the desktop PC be next?

IDC recently released its estimates for PC growth, if you can call it that, for 2012, predicting that new PC sales will grow only by 0.9 percent. Anything positive is still pretty good these days, but in the long run, a less-than-1-percent gain doesn’t bode well for the industry. It’s easy to look at that dismal number and think it means the end of the line. 


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Some people are already taking that stand, saying that desktops will give way to smart phones and tablets the way typewriters gave away to PCs. The fact that HP and Dell both are experiencing a perilous drop in desktop and notebook sales supports that argument.

But before we start thinking totally in terms of apps, I think there are a few things to consider. First off, the desktop PC did not just replace the typewriter. It could do a lot more than process words. No typewriter ever sent an e-mail or logged into the Internet to check the factual content of a document. The PC brought new functions and features to the government workforce, one of which just happened to be a sort of typewriter.

Smart phones can’t do all the things a desktop computer can, or at least they can’t do them as well. They perform different functions, mostly low-level computing tasks suitable for the small screen and virtual keyboards, and deliver lots of entertainment functions on the move.

If you need to actually do serious word processing or networking, or run many of the more complex programs that government uses, you are going to need a PC.

Secondly, just because the PC market isn’t growing by leaps and bounds doesn’t mean that people are chucking them out of the windows down at the Agriculture Department. One thing about desktop PCs these days is that they are incredibly powerful. When we benchmark the new Intel i3, i5 and especially the i7 chips, we find almost more power than anyone can realistically use short of gaming or perhaps computer-aided design applications.

You simply don’t need to buy a new PC every three years anymore. In fact, if you are doing mostly office functions, a desktop PC can last a very long time. It’s like those funny commercials with the gum that keeps its flavor. Just because something is not wearing out, doesn’t mean it’s not popular. It just means fewer new sales.

Finally there is one more factor that is kind of lost in the fine print of the reports. Desktop and laptop PC sales still vastly outnumber the sales of tablets and smart phones. They are growing much more slowly, while smart phones are ballooning, but they won’t cross paths anytime soon.

The wild card here may be Windows 8. In the October issue of GCN, I will be reviewing Microsoft Windows 8 and coming to a conclusion as to whether or not government should begin to adapt the new OS. I’m hard at work on that piece right now and have not yet come to a conclusion.

However, I will say that Windows 8 is the same for tablets and desktops, with the bulk of the features shining more for the tablet side. That could make tablets and the way they work more attractive to desktop users. It could actually further reduce new PC sales since people could figure they are going to get a tablet-like experience on their desktop anyway.

But that is a talk for another time. For now, rest assured that your desktop machines aren’t going anywhere.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

Reader Comments

Mon, Dec 10, 2012

things will have to change significantly before i go without a desktop. Visibility is as real as security. Sure, with fancy 4G LTE and an AT&T connection or what have you, you can SEND large files but you can't create them without a good monitor and lots of memory. As a graphics designer in Dallas, I'll be the last one to relinquish my PC.

Wed, Nov 7, 2012 Michael

No actual worker can honestly say they are more productive on a tablet than a computer. No informed administrator or project manager will ever agree that their business data is better off on someone elses hard drives.

Thu, Aug 30, 2012 LocalGovIT United States

There is so much to be said on this topic that a comment section can't do it justice. Whether your talking about all-in-ones, laptops, netbooks, or tablets the price of mobility and minimal space usage costs a pretty premium financially and functionally. I enjoy my tablet on the go and for quick little tasks; however, I would not want it to be my primary work computer and I won't be replacing any of my users desktops with tablets anytime soon either. That being said as far as Windows 8 is concerned, I don't want a tablet centric OS on my desktop. So, I'll just buy a few retail copies of 7 Ultimate for my personal computers and hope they work until Microsoft comes to their senses.

Wed, Aug 29, 2012

From post on Wed, Aug 29, 2012 Partly an indictment of the public school system, partly an indictment of higher education, in not being able to produce a product that works. The indictment is not on the public school or higher education system but on the politicians whom have systematically gutted the above systems and corporations who have moved 90% of industrial complex off shore including their profits to avoid paying taxes and thus not supporting the country that made it possible to start a business.

Wed, Aug 29, 2012 Terry Schneider United States

Back in the mid 1990s Citrix came out with a system of running apps and all computations from server base and sending the the user only the pixels to the desktop. The beauty of this system is that the desktop did not need the two to three year updates or replacement only the servers. This is the system that the government and all business should consider instead of Cloud Computing. Cloud Computing is vulnerable. In house servers with Citrix is not based on Cloud Computing but private networks. With Citrix base system the only reason to update a workstation is for lowering power consumption. Terry Schneider Happy PC Computing

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