It’s nothing personal: The decline and fall of the PC empire

Sometime last year, I had a fascinating conversation with a group of 20-something people I had interaction with through a social activity. I was considerably older than them so the way the discussion proceeded sparked my interest. I’ve fictionalized what was said somewhat, but it went pretty much like this:

ME: Bob, can I have your email address? I want to send this doc to you.

BOB: Sure, but I hardly ever use email, I don’t have a computer.

ME: What? You don’t have a computer??

BOB: My friends and I just use smartphones nowadays.

ME: I see. What about you, Peter, do you have email?

PETER: My email address is yadda-yadda. I have access to a computer sometimes…

ME: Suzie, what about you, you have a computer, right?

SUZIE: I have a MacBook Air.

ME: Cool. So I can email the doc to you then, right?

SUZIE: Well, I don’t have WiFi at my apartment, but I guess I could take my MacBook to Starbucks and check my email there as I don’t write emails on my iPhone.

Cloud first

PC sales
I think you probably get the drift — I know Microsoft certainly does. The rapid decline in PC sales over the last few years has been trumpeted everywhere in the tech news world, and there’s every indication that it will continue despite the recent uptick Gartner reported in June of this year. Some of this decline may be a result of Microsoft’s cloud-first, mobile-first vision articulated and promoted by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in back in 2014 during a press briefing. On the other hand, it’s also likely that the shift in Microsoft’s vision by Nadella was itself inspired by the evident stagnation of the personal computer market that industry watchers had been observing in years immediately prior to Microsoft’s announcement. And everyone knows that stagnation is often the prelude to a collapse.

Reasons for the PC market’s collapse

As I talked with a number of my colleagues about why young people minimize or even discount entirely reliance upon owning a personal computer nowadays, I got several different responses highlighting various possible reasons for this phenomenon. One of the obvious drivers for this change is the generational differences that have arisen in our society in recent times. Eldon, an IT manager in Calgary, Canada, reported to me that he had recently completed a 13-year tenure as IT manager for an audio visual company. He said that “the business consists of many sales personnel that fall, generally, into an older demographic and field installation technicians that fall into that younger, mobile-first, demographic that you mention. Within this business, there was a huge delta in the use and perception in ‘computing.’ The younger field technicians lived almost 100 percent off the mobile devices but due to the nature of the business, they would have to test laptop functionality in a boardroom. This might be the only time they might boot up the laptop, to perform field validation of functionality. Because the laptop was powered-up so seldom, frequent were the complaints about laptop performance as Windows updates and virus updates would overwhelm their ability to perform a simple test. I would encourage them to power it on more frequently for these updates, but most could not be bothered and saw the tool as archaic in nature.”

I asked him if the advent of new technologies such as the cloud had had any impact with the older workers at his company. Eldon replied, “Pivot now to the more elderly sales realm and the use of a laptop with Outlook as the primary program is commonplace. Seven years ago, the business shifted from on-premises Exchange to Google Apps, about one year ago and for strategic reason, the business shifted from Google Apps to Office 365. The sales realm could not be happier due to the more-native compatibility with Outlook and Skype for Business. The younger generation sees it as a backward step.”

What about IT managers and IT pros who deploy and maintain corporate computing infrastructures? Eldon says, “There is a disconnect there. IT managers need to embrace a ‘mobile-first’ philosophy to application selection, deployment, and support. Education in the older demographic to bridge that gap is necessary and all need to acknowledge that various forms of communications and computing need to be supported, not only a ‘my way’ philosophy.”

Addicted to smartphones

PC sales
Another driver for this shift can possibly be found in the nature of smartphone technologies themselves — they’re addictive. One colleague, who is an alumnus from MIT, suggests that younger workers are completely addicted to their smartphones. When I told him about my conversation with these young people, he replied: “No surprises there! Even older folks are getting totally absorbed (totally!) in their smartphones, so much so that I have had to tell cohorts of mine, when meeting for dinner, to please not leave your phones out on the table staring at you (except for obvious cases of someone on call, e.g., a doctor). I really think it has gotten to be an epidemic of ISSI — inflated sense of self-importance! Plus FOMO [fear of missing out], of course!”

Mind you, being older I can still recall how addicted I became to the personal computer when it first came out, especially with games. “I admit that my 20’s are a thing of the distant past,” said another colleague. “I too recall the lust for the TRS-80 and other PCs of the past, but I like the ability to work from anywhere if the need arises. I have a smartphone, two tablets (work/personal), a laptop, a work PC, a home PC. I find that if I want to entertain myself or have informal interactions, I use my smartphone or tablet. They are readily available with near constant connections. If I have work to do, then I tend to use a PC. I can use my work tablet for work, but it is cumbersome because I have to type a lot to do what I do. I’m a technical manager, which involves some report writing, reviewing of code, upper tier tech support/problem solving, etc.”

Other colleagues like Colin, who works as a computer and communications systems manager in Vancouver, don’t think the problem is as serious as some of us in IT seem to think. “I work in a post-graduate medical education and research environment,” Colin says, “and have not noticed any lack of computer skills in the 20-something group. If they can’t operate a computer with an office suite and some specialized research software, they won’t be writing many university papers. They seem to have a similar mix of office computer knowledge as the middle-agers, but more knowledge of social media. In the outside world, I know a few 20-somethings that only have email accounts for occasional use, like job hunting or communicating with older adults. If they don’t have to bring work home and don’t have any need for an office suite, why would they buy a computer?” So perhaps it’s really the shift in what constitutes “work” in our society that is the major driver in the decline and fall of the PC. And who really likes to sit in a cubicle and stare at a monitor all day anyway?

What reasons do you attribute to PC sales continuing to decline? Does the personal computer have a future when it comes to earning a living? Or will we all end up living off universal basic income that we spend by waving our smartphones? Post your thoughts below using our commenting feature to continue this conversation.

Featured image: Pixabay

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1 thought on “It’s nothing personal: The decline and fall of the PC empire”

  1. Good observation. If the majority of your computing is consumption, and not a lot of keyboard input, then you are going to have a tablet or a phone, and no computer.

    If the majority, or a significant amount of your computing is production, then you are going to have a phone and a desktop/laptop.

    Also fueling the decline, from an OS perspective, is cross-platform apps. If I can run the same app on Microsoft OS, macOS, Linux, iOS, and Android, the platform becomes irrelevant.

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