The following is an in-depth look at how the PC is evolving as a form factor, and whether or not its survival is threatened by the proliferation of smaller form factors now occurring.
Signs Pointing to End of PCs
HP recently announced it wants to end its PC business. HP represents 17.5% of the PC market in terms of sales. It is the biggest player out of all of them (including Dell, Lenovo, Acer, etc.). You bet this was a calculated decision based on a significant amount of research.
IBM exited the PC business in 2005.
Mark Dean – CTO of IBM – has recently stated that the PC is going the way of the typewriter.
StatCounter’s “Mobile vs. Desktop” chart shows a clear downward trend for desktops that is accelerating. Mobile now represents 7% of Internet usage share. It has doubled in the last 9 months.
Meanwhile, the market share of Windows, as an OS is dropping year by year. If you take the percentage of devices surfing the Internet right now that are running Windows, it’s around 85%. In 2003, that share was 93%.
So… Is the PC Dying?
What’s the #1 advantage that users of PCs have versus users of other devices? Hint: It’s one word.
That’s right. If you’re a professional of any kind, whether a programmer, graphic artist, music producer, writer, or architect, the PC gives you the most productive environment out of all devices out there. The reason is simple: the combination of mouse, keyboard, monitor is the most efficient machine-user interaction mechanism to date.
Will that change? You bet it will. But not in any way that you might think.
First of all, productivity will remain an issue with tablets and smartphones for as long as they lack a cheap & convenient way to dock with a traditional mouse-keyboard-monitor combination.
However, the PC as we knew it in its desktop ATX form is going away very soon, for all but enthusiast (i.e. geek) users. Laptops will also go away soon. The reason is that even laptops are too large and waste too much power. Why carry around a 2-kg 14″ laptop when the same power can be had in a 4″x3″ black box weighing less than 300 g?
From PC to Nano-Hub
At Computex 2007, the alternative to the traditional PC (laptop & desktop) was officially revealed. The Mobile-ITX form factor at the time was capable of delivering about the same computing power as a cutting-edge desktop PC in 2002.
Now, with the advent of AMD’s Fusion processors (which I consider to be just what the doctor ordered for the transition from traditional PC to nano-hub), it’s possible to watch 1080p videos smoothly on a “PC” the size of your palm. This is known as a “MID” or “UMPC.” I call it the “nano-hub” because ultimately it’s just a tiny portable hub into which you plug your monitor, keyboard, mouse, and other devices.
I believe this to be the the future form factor of the PC. This means that chip makers will soon ditch the power-hungry 10W+ TDP CPUs and move 100% to sub-10W CPUs.
The race toward the smallest PC has me questioning what is a PC?
A modern PC, as I see it, has several defining functional characteristics (subjectively defined) which must all be present. I consider these to be the minimum requirements for a device to be considered a PC:
- Capable of connecting to Internet and supporting the latest web standards
- Capable of outputting video to an external display, supporting that display’s native resolution (e.g. 1680×1050 for a 22″ monitor)
- Capable of playing 1080p video at full frame rate with no lag
- Capable of running multiple applications simultaneously and running services in the background
- Capable of connecting to a keyboard and a mouse
- Supports custom input devices like joysticks and webcams
- Capable of playing back audio through external speakers
- Provides a way to develop and debug custom applications without requiring a separate device
If all of these things hold, I consider a device to be a PC. However, others may have different definitions.
For example, using the above definition, an iPad is not a PC, because it requires an external device to create applications for it and because it does not have true multitasking. The same goes for most consumer Android devices.
Benchmarks & Specs
In 2012, the typical specs & benchmarks of a typical nano-hub will be as follows:
- CPU: 6000 MIPS (ref: Core2 E8400 = 18000 MIPS)
- RAM: 2 GB – 4 GB
- Hard Disk: Hard disk? … Really? Try “Fixed Storage.” That’s better. This will be a 60 GB – 240 GB SSD.
- Power Usage (Total): 30 W
- Power Usage (CPU): 5 W
- Connections: Bluetooth, WiFi, 3G, HDMI
- Size: 4″x3″x0.5″
- Weight: 300 g
- Moving Parts: 0
TLDR / Summary
As I see it, the PC in its traditional ATX form, is indeed dead. The next form is what I would call the nano-hub: a device that is much smaller, portable (can be carried in your pocket), and at least as powerful as a 2002 desktop PC.
The typical nano-hub will have a CPU that consumes less than 10 Watts of power. The hub itself will generally use fewer than 30 Watts – almost 1/10 of what a traditional PC would use. It will have no moving parts, and will fit inside your pocket.