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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.

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