Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of proclamations that the personal computer as we know it is rapidly being replaced by smartphones and tablets, with today’s CNN Money article about the slow death of the PC being just the latest example. Personally, as someone who works in the IT field and uses a PC to create tangible content, I feel that there is a salient point often left out of analyses such as this: if the PC is on its way out, then on what device will producers create all of the content that we will consume with our new phones and tablets?
Tablets are great for consumption of media: checking email, browsing the web, updating your Facebook status, reading magazines or books. Some of these things were the sole reasons why many households had a “family computer” in the first place. For those households, tablets are a great option because there’s a lot less cruft, a lot more simplicity and lower energy use, not to mention no more need to dedicate an entire piece of furniture to a desktop computer. But for somebody who is creating intricately detailed websites or graphic art, or coding and testing an application in an integrated development environment, how can a small, simple tablet possibly hold up?
It can’t, in my world. While it’s possible to create compelling art on a tablet using a stylus or even your own finger — similar to what a Wacom tablet on a PC would do, although much less precise in my experience — this allows for only fairly broad strokes. I have no idea how it would ever be possible to use a relatively fat, stubby, imprecise thing like a finger to design things like pixel-precise layouts and finely detailed icons. I simply need to have the precision of a pointing device.
Multi-monitor setups are another thing that’s not happening (yet) with tablets, and I’m not in any hurry to give up my three-screen array with Photoshop’s canvas on one screen and its tool palettes on another so that I can cram it all onto a 10-inch tablet. No thanks. Programmers surely fall into the same group, and I know many who live and die by multi-monitor arrays consisting of as many as four, five or even six screens. Even with one screen, you’d need significant enough real estate for all of the tools, browsers and panels that typically go along with IDE-based development.
I found the CNN Money article somewhat telling because it indicates PC sales are actually up significantly in markets like China and India, while they are down in North America. Factoring into this, I’m sure, is the fact that China and India’s economies are growing very rapidly, affording more and more households the ability (and desire) to purchase a PC. Whereas here in the West, PCs have surely already reached a sort of saturation, and tablets are looking much more appealing to families who just want a device that can check email and surf the web.
At the same time, though, I wonder if part of this is because India and China are doing a huge amount of actual producing of content now, not just manufacturing of tangible goods but also development of software and systems.
Although there’s no doubt that the PC’s market share stands to continue declining slowly as more consumer-friendly “consumption devices” become both available and more affordable, I don’t see the PC truly “dying” anytime soon. It’s simply too important a tool for too many professionals, a tool for which there is not yet anything close to an apt replacement.