Is the Death of the PC Imminent?

PC imageSales of personal computers — including laptops and desktops — are at a record low. According to research firm IDC, global shipments dropped 14% last quarter — nearly double the decline that analysts expected — mainly because of the failure of Microsoft’s Windows 8 to gain traction among consumers and skyrocketing tablet sales.

So is the death of the PC imminent? According to several Wharton faculty informally surveyed by K@W Today about changes in their PC usage, the answer is no. As academics, some — including operations and information management professor Gerard Cachon, accounting professor Karthik Balakrishnan and real estate professor Maisy Wong — indicated that PCs are still the best tool for conducting research or analyzing datasets. “Tablets are useful, but I will ultimately still have to [connect one] to my PC/a server to do data analysis,” Wong says. “I think PCs are the same as servers. So, as long as I need to analyze big datasets, I’ll still need PCs.”

Balakrishnan adds: “For work like mine that involves extensive data analysis with quick speed, user-friendliness and reliability, the PC still dominates. The cloud/network system is good, but connection reliability and portability of data are still an issue. It is unlikely that my work can entirely be done using a mobile device like an iPad because of issues like typing, even if I move to a cloud system for processing and data storage.”

Several others indicated that using smaller keyboards and screens on mobile devices can be problematic. “My own PC usage has not declined at all,” says management professor Sigal Barsade. “The speed, efficiency, versatility and power the PC gives me can’t [be matched by] the other options. In addition, from a physical perspective, the smaller screens and keyboards vastly slow me down.”

“I have an iPad, and I like it, but the laptop is still my primary computer at home, and the desktop at work,” notes legal studies and business ethics professor David Zaring. “For us slow adopters, with predilections for typing and big screens, the PC has a great deal of staying power.”

Although her PC use has declined slightly, legal studies and business ethics professor Amy Sepinwall admits that “I loathe doing any extensive email writing, word processing or power point work on my iPad, and find even web surfing easier on my PC than on a tablet.” She adds, however, that her iPad now takes precedence in one area: travel. “Even though my laptop is a Macbook Air, and so very small and light, it is still bulkier than my iPad. And my iPad has 3G capability, so I am never without Internet access, whereas my laptop allows me access only where wireless is available.”

Others, including operations and information management professor Noah Gans, mentioned their use of mobile devices — such as the iPhone — outside the office, where Gans notes that his PC usage has not declined. Business economics and public policy professor Katja Seim also says that her PC usage has not declined in the office, where she does “heavy computing” involving statistics and programs like Excel. And although she is using her home PC less frequently, she doesn’t think that tablets and smartphones “are currently in a position to compete with PCs for such [computing applications], so at least in the short- to intermediate-run, PCs won’t become irrelevant.”

But for management professor Olivier Chatain, the balance is now tipping in favor of mobile devices. “My use of a PC has definitely declined,” he says. “Activities that do not require multiple or specialized software and a very large screen are more and more done on a tablet. For example: reading, email, note taking. PCs will ultimately become a niche product relative to mobile computing.”

Balakrishnan agrees that beyond the “extensive coding and data analysis” done by academics and other specialists, PCs will continue to lose some ground against mobile devices. For “web-browsing, Internet banking, word processing and presentations, I can see a move towards mobile devices and hence an overall PC sales decline. The decline can be exacerbated if the file storage structure/interface with the cloud in mobile devices improves.”

But will the humble PC ever become obsolete? “Yes, but mostly because ‘ever’ is so vague,” says marketing professor Christophe Van den Bulte. “I am confident that the PC will be irrelevant 1,000 years from now. The more relevant — and much harder — question is: ‘By how much by what time?’ Of course, that’s the kind of question that pundits make sure to avoid.”

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