Every few months lately an event happens that has people asking if the personal computer is going the way of the dinosaur, or more accurately, the radio, relegated to niche obscurity.
The latest is a report by market research firm IDC indicating that worldwide PC shipments were 13.9% lower in first quarter 2013 than the same period last year, which is the largest decline since IDC began recording such numbers in 1994. A similar report by market research firm Gartner had similar findings.
Good reasons exist for the decline in PC sales that fall far short of the PC's lack of utility.
More people are buying computerized tablets and smart phones. Sales of these portable devices are hurting sales of lower-priced laptop PCs in particular.
Users are holding onto their PCs for longer times. Unlike in the past, a working three- or four-year-old PC can still be a very viable machine. Today's hardware and software is relatively "mature," meaning that a new product or version typically doesn't offer huge increases in capabilities as in the past.
The operating system that comes with most new PCs, Windows 8, is seriously flawed. In trying to bolster its sales of Windows tablets and smart phones, with Windows 8 Microsoft is trying to force PC users into using their PCs like a tablet.
Windows 8's single-task, single-window apps, accessible through the Start screen and available from Microsoft, are significantly less versatile than multi-window programs, accessible through the Start menu and available from any software vendor.
Some people are waiting until Windows 9, or whatever the next version of Windows is called, is released, hoping that Microsoft fixes its operating system. Other people are buying PCs that still come with Windows 7. Still others are using work-arounds with Windows 8, including buying a third-party Start menu replacement such as Start8 (www.stardock.com/products/start8) to boot straight to the desktop.
Tablets and smart phones typically come preloaded with useful software. Laptop and desktop PCs, on the other hand, typically come preloaded with "crapware," crippled or trial versions of programs from Microsoft and others that entice you to pay for the full version. Software vendors pay hardware vendors to load their PCs with these come-ons, which most users find bothersome at best.
Laptop and desktop PCs are more expensive for what they deliver than tablets and smart phones. This is primarily a result of the high prices Microsoft charges hardware vendors to load machines with Microsoft Windows or that Apple charges consumers for its hardware and software.
The IDC report largely blames Microsoft and PC hardware vendors for declining PC sales, and it's partially correct. But the reality is that more portable computing devices, through their portability, do provide significant benefits. A smart phone or tablet is simply easier to carry around than a laptop.
Tablets and smart phones can be great for Web browsing and reading email. But portability comes with its compromises. Desktop and laptop PCs have faster processors, larger screens, physical keyboards (without requiring you to buy an add-on), robust multitasking capabilities, and multiple USB ports.
Consequently, PCs are significantly better than tablets and smart phones at productivity tasks such as heavy text input, spreadsheet analysis, and photo, audio, and video editing.
Desktop and laptop PCs may be declining in sales, particularly in relationship to the exploding sales of tablets and smart phones, not to mention the sales of other computing devices such as book e-readers and game consoles.
But PCs are still selling in the millions. In all likelihood, desktop and laptop personal computers won't look like they do now 50 years down the road. But in all likelihood, 10 years from now people will still be using PCs as they do today--to get work done.
One analyst prophesied that the current malaise facing the PC industry means the end of Microsoft Windows. That likely won't happen any time soon either. But Microsoft does need to get its act together.
Millions of people are still using PCs running Windows XP, which preceded Windows Vista, which preceded Windows 7. Like Windows 7, Windows XP worked.
Microsoft is threatening to stop providing security updates to Windows XP after April of 2014. It wants us to use Windows 8. It should focus on making the next version of Windows work.
A leak of an early build of the next version of Windows, codenamed Windows Blue, isn't promising. Unless it changes course, Microsoft appears to be sticking to its tablet-like take on PC operating system design.
Reid Goldsborough is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.