Daniel Lemire's blog

, 4 min read

Will tablets kill PCs?

I have always been a fan of the personal computer. I worked all summer once to buy myself a cloned PC XT. I probably would not be a computer science researcher without the personal computer. It has shaped my life. We may not remember, but the PC was a somewhat surprising disruption. You could explain the success of some early PCs (e.g., from Commodore) as game machines. But if this is all you had to go on, the success of the IBM PC was puzzling. It was not a very good machine to play games: it had minimal video and sound capabilities. It worked as a word processor, but it was awkward. And yet it soon became your PC, just like you had your car and your phone. It brought freedom. You got software on it to print birthday cards. You wrote your first novel on it. You could run your own business with a PC.

People have been predicting the death of the PC for decades now. For example, several corporations predicted that thin clients would replace the PC in business. That is, businesses would go back to having a few large well-maintained servers and people would use cheap, interchangeable, devices called thin clients to connect to these servers. The thin clients would require no software-related maintenance. Unfortunately, the PCs kept getting cheaper. So the savings from using thin clients instead of PCs were not worth it. And, unlike a thin client, the PC could keep working when the servers were down. Moreover, the CEO has a PC at home: he does not want to switch to a thin client at the office.

More recently, traditional PCs were almost disrupted by netbooks. Though cheaper and smaller, they were still PCs. And they failed to gain enough traction to displace the PCs.

Something funny was happening in another market however. Phones were getting more powerful. The iPhone is just as powerful than a PC was ten years ago. Importantly, this meant that a whole set of mobile technologies were getting cheap and widely available: tiny cameras, super small CPUs, and so on.

So this made the tablet, as envisioned by the scifi authors for decades, a possibility. Apple was the first one to market it successfully as the iPad. Right now, we can buy a Google Nexus 7 tablet for $200. It has a 4-core 1.3GHz processor, 1GB RAM and many things that most PCs did not have even 5 years ago. Oh! Did I mention that it is $200?

So, I think that this time around, tablets will kill PCs. To be precise, I make the following prediction:

In some quarter of 2015, the unit sales of tablets will be at least twice the unit sales of traditional PCs, in the USA.

Greg Linden calls this prediction incautious because experts predict that, at best, the tablet sales will match PC sales by 2015. Indeed, for my prediction to come true, it is not enough for the tablet market to grow, people must stop renewing their PCs and come to rely on their tablets. If my prediction comes true, the PC industry will have begun a slow march toward irrelevance.

I even put my money where my mouth is: I bet $100 against Greg that I am right. The loser gets to hand over $100 to a charity chosen by the winner.

I should make it clear that I am not silly enough to think that I can meaningfully predict the future. But I also think that the analysts have too much confidence in their own predictions. Consider this beautiful quote for example (source):

Another software technology will come along and kill off the web, just as it killed news, gopher, et al. And that judgment day will arrive very soon — in the next two to three years, not 25 years from now. (George F. Colony, Forrester Research CEO, 2000)

As far as tablets are concerned, tech. people cannot imagine tablets replacing traditional PCs. Yet I see regular folks like my father forgetting all about PCs and using exclusively his iPad. I have seen people showing up at meetings with tablets for at least a year now… some of them just regular people who are not trying to look good. They genuinely get a lot out of their tablets. They have been frustrated with their laptops for too long. A lot of these people are decision makers.

As others have remarked, not everything is great about the tablet. You can write your first novel on it, but I would urge you to get a physical keyboard connected to it (and then it is no longer a real tablet). But PC technology has stagnated. All the faults PCs had 5 years ago are still with us: slow boot sequences, viruses, confusing configurations… and PCs have gotten less and less hackable.

I admit, the desktop computer is a good match for our office jobs: a desk with a desktop PC on it. It goes together. I don’t know how companies and governments can reduce their stock of PCs. But they sure can spend less money renewing their PCs. They will need to if they keep buying more tablets.

I admit that I am not quite sure how students will get by without a PC, but they won’t be using their PCs to watch videos or read in 2015. PCs will start to look like this old typewriter you have in the basement. I also think that tablets are a much better match for retirees. PCs as sold by Dell are currently a mess. They are confusing and hard to maintain. Cheap tablets are a much better match.

Conclusion: I don’t know whether tablets will kill PCs. But if they do, this will be a big deal and I want to be able to say “I told you so”.