The PC is booming—just not the PC we know

So, you heard the news: PC sales are tanking. Apparently, nobody wants to buy Dells or HPs anymore; nobody cares about clunky laptops and bulky mid-towers. People haven't necessarily stopped using them—aging PCs are still humming along in bedrooms, living rooms, and offices everywhere. It's just that those machines aren't getting replaced. Instead, people are spending their hard-earned dough on what analysts call post-PC devices: smartphones, tablets, phablets, and so on.

The PC industry is scrambling to adapt. Microsoft has retooled Windows into a weird hybrid that straddles post-PC tropes and legacy conventions. Laptop makers are bending over backwards to give us touch-enabled laptops that double as tablets. Everyone is working overtime to put a new spin on old concepts... and by all accounts, it isn't working. PC shipments suffered their greatest decline ever last quarter, in spite of Windows 8 and all those tablet-notebook hybrids.

Some say there's no hope, but I disagree. Because the PC is booming—just not the PC we know.

Source: German Federal Archive.

What is a PC? The initials stand for "personal computer." According to the Merriam-Webster, a personal computer is a "general-purpose computer equipped with a microprocessor and designed to run especially commercial software (as a word processor or Internet browser) for an individual user."

In the 90s, when I was growing up, personal computers were few and far between. To record TV shows, we used VCRs and VHS tapes. To share music with friends, we spent hours copying cassette tapes. To get in touch with friends and relatives, we used a land line—or, if textual communication was more up our alley, we wrote a letter. By hand. With a pen and paper.

The only kind of personal computer you could buy was a big beige box with a matching CRT monitor. Or, if you were loaded, you could get a laptop with a crappy passive-matrix LCD and a trackball wedged in the palm rest. These were toys of the privileged. We, the geeky elites, used them to play Doom and to rack up preposterous phone bills surfing AltaVista and GeoCities on 14.4K modems. A PC was a badge of pride. Finding someone else who knew about the Internet was sufficient to spark a lasting friendship.

If you'd fallen into a coma in 1993 and awoken today, you'd realize that personal computers are everywhere now. You'd probably notice the laptops and mid-towers at first, but then you'd start to see the phones, the tablets, the game consoles... and you'd think, aren't they all the same thing? Aren't these all general-purpose computers equipped with processors and designed to run commercial software? Sure, some of them are a little more locked down than the IBM clones of old, but that's nothing a little jailbreaking or rooting won't fix. Hackers can still write their own software. Not only that, but they can also package that software, ship it, and make money from it with very little effort or risk. It's a far cry from the days of shareware trials on 1.44MB floppy disks.

Two decades ago, having the tools to play video games, to get on the Internet, and to write crappy BASIC programs made us special. Now that personal computing has grown into something so exceedingly ubiquitous, we feel like we're not so unique anymore. Some of us see the PC's evolution as a corruption of something precious—but I don't think it is. The basic formula that made PCs great 20 years ago is still there, more or less intact, in today's post-PC devices. You just have to look past the drastically different packaging and realize that modern personal computers are more beautiful, more versatile, and easier to use than than they've ever been.

I still spend a lot of time in front of an old-school desktop PC. I wouldn't dream of giving it up. The thing is, though, my PC is big, heavy, difficult to operate, and required for serious work—Photoshop, Excel, web design, text editing, you name it. There's nothing terribly personal or cozy about it. If you think about it, today's tablets and phones fulfill the PC's original mission—making personal computing available to the masses—far more elegantly than this thousand-dollar workstation.

Because that's really what this is: a workstation. And that's really what most of today's traditional PCs are. They're workstations with multiple processor cores, Windows NT-based operating systems, and copious amounts of storage and memory.

There's nothing wrong with that. Workstations will always be needed, because there will always be work to do. But we shouldn't pretend that the PC is somehow dying because people aren't buying workstations they no longer need. The PC isn't dying, because today's real PCs are in our pockets. We're buying more of them than ever, and they're doing more for us than i486 Compaqs ever did.

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