Talk of the world entering a “post-PC era” has become almost deafening in recent months. Society is apparently on the threshold of a new age that will see users abandon traditional desktop or laptop PCs in favour tablet devices or smartphones to carry out their everyday tasks.
But some argue that tablets and smartphones are unable to provide everything users need, especially in the business environment. So is talk of the PC’s demise premature?
Recent sales figures suggest that while the PC may not be at death’s door, it is certainly looking a little peaky, with shipments of tablets and smartphones far outstripping demand for laptops, netbooks and desktops.
In the first quarter of 2011, worldwide PC shipments totalled 84.3 million units, according to Gartner, one per cent down on the same quarter last year.
Meanwhile, shipments of tablets in the same quarter stood at 7.2 million, according to IDC, which forecasts that a staggering 53 million units will be sold over the year. The firm also reported that in the fourth quarter of 2010, 100 million smartphones were sold worldwide, compared with just 92 million PCs.
“Low prices for consumer PCs, which have long stimulated growth, no longer attract buyers. Instead, consumers are focusing on media tablets and other consumer electronics,” said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner.
Meanwhile, a recent survey by Virgin Media Business added to the weight of evidence that suggests the traditional office PC may have had its day. According to the study, 58 per cent of the UK’s workforce believes that companies will no longer require an office space to do business by 2021, as mobile working continues to grow in popularity, and 56 per cent of British employees believe that business and consumer technologies will have merged completely by 2021.
By 2021, almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of the respondents hope that one device will be all they need to work and play, offering access to everything they require in their professional and private lives.
“In many ways we are already in this post-PC era - users want to use any device that suits their needs,” said Robert Whiteside, Google UK’s head of enterprise.
It is clear that employees expect to be able to use tablets and smartphones in the organisation, but few organisations take a calculated and well-considered approach to enabling the use of such devices.
“Some of the companies that brought in tablets en masse did so without understanding the consequences - there was quite a lot of emotional purchasing,” said Colin Williams, practice leader in network security at Computacenter.
“People started using them socially and began seeing work benefits and thought: why shouldn’t we use these at work? So the devices end up in the workplace but they give corporate IT departments a problem in that it is not clear how the company easily makes the devices comply with corporate security policy as well as making them usable. Similarly, it is difficult to make them deliver corporate benefits and get a return on investment from this corporate asset,” he said.
Of course, the rise of tablet PCs and smartphones is not the only factor contributing to the reduced role of the PC. Widespread use of virtualisation means thin client terminals are being used more widely, particularly as businesses increasingly shift to cloud services and web-based programs. Similarly, PC refresh cycles are longer, as businesses see that they no longer need high-end top of the range PCs to complete everyday work tasks.
“Everybody’s trying to avoid capex costs, meaning any service that can extend the life of a PC - and saves the company from replacing hardware, operating systems, copies of Office and peripherals - is going to be popular,” said Rob Lovell, CEO at cloud computing services provider ThinkGrid.
“So rather than swapping out PCs with other devices, they’re extending their life. If they use a hosted desktop, then all they really need is access to the internet. Even if they’re running a 20-year-old PC, they can still use the latest and greatest web tools.”
All of this means that although PCs are being replaced less often, they are unlikely to disappear completely anytime soon, whatever new gadgets come onto the market.
Genevieve Bell is a renowned anthropologist and the director of Interaction and Experience Research at Intel Labs. She studies the way people interact with technology and claims that the “Post-PC Era” is just another sound bite, like “paperless office”.
“The paperless office was really just a rallying cry to make new types of technology acceptable and highly visible,” said Bell. “When we talk about the ‘Post-PC Era’ we’re not really talking about the end of the PC, but rather about the rise of several new types of computing platform.
“There’s a whole generation of devices are out there built for consumption, but consumers, as well as employees, are still very interested in creating content, such as writing stories or making videos. More robust computing platforms, such as the PC, offer an easy expression of creativity and that’s very important for everyone,” she said.