Thursday, 20 October 2011

why the desktop PC is dead

I have seen a number of arguments on the Internet about whether the much-ballyhooed proclamation of the death of the PC has any merit. I believe it does. Although industry pundits have been proclaiming its death for ten years, things are really starting to look that way, now. Of course, the situation is still very much like Mark Twain's ["The report of my death was an exaggeration".]( But I believe that with the [iPad](, the PC's death is not far off.

Many of the arguments against this prediction focus on the minimalist feature-set of tablets. "There are no or insufficient USB ports", they may argue, or "there's no video or audio input jack", or my personal favourite: "I want to be able to install a custom graphics card". Or these detractors may focus on the software: "I rely on Microsoft Access" or "I want to render 3D animation", or - my complaint - "I need a UNIX shell". But these complaints are not the complaints of Joe Average, who just wants to check his email, type a simple letter, read a book, and browse the web. These are the complaints of computer nerds. They're in the minority.

Average Joes will be buying tablets and ditching their PCs - and they're the majority. The only reason the "PC is dying" prediction hasn't come true yet, is that the iPad is still relatively new and relatively expensive. Up until now, tablet PCs have been as complex as regular desktop PCs - without any benefits apart from portability. But portability is just one of the reasons tablets are worth considering. The most important point of the iPad, and why it has succeeded where previous tablets have failed, is its simplicity — which it owes to iOS, the stripped-down Mac OS X that powers the device.

PCs are not quite dead, but they soon will be. As soon as people notice that you can do spreadsheets on iOS using, say, [Apple's iWork suite](, then there will be no major reason to use a PC. A MacBook Air, for example, is just a tablet with a keyboard; it has no optical drive, and its hard drive is a solid-state flash RAM drive. It contains no moving parts, just like the iPad. How is an iMac - the all-in-one screen device - not a tablet with a keyboard? Remove its optical drive and keyboard, and add a touch screen, and voila - the iMac is a tablet. As soon as Apple move the keyboard onto the Mac's screen, the Mac will no longer exist, and Apple will only be making tablets. The question will just be which model of tablet you want.

As for Windows-based PCs - in ten years they'll start copying apple - as usual. And then PCs will disappear. Where is my evidence that this will happen? Well, Apple removed the floppy drive in 1997/1998. PC manufacturers have since stopped shipping floppy drives. Now watch: once Microsoft have an app store and online downloads of their software, the optical drive will disappear from generic PCs, too, just as it is disappearing on Apple's machines. The ultimate optical drive killer is online streaming video, or Apple's iTunes store, where you can buy movies and download them legally. Once you can do that, you really do not need an optical drive. So after the optical drive is gone, the only thing stopping a PC from being a tablet is whether it has a physical keyboard or a touchscreen keyboard.

As for hardware port limitations, the new iPads have video output - it's just a question of video input for camcorders. But even then, if Apple improves their built-in video cameras, there will be no need for that. Likewise, once Apple and Microsoft are shipping major games on their app stores, there will also be a need for them to ship high-end graphics cards in their tablets. That will end the argument that tablets lack 'serious' gaming capacity.

I predict that within ten years, the only PCs left will be server boxes in corporate headquarters, research entities, and so on, and desktop machines in movie manufacturers' render farms. Apart from entities or people who need massive processing power, the future of the desktop PC is extinction.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Steven P. Jobs - RIP

I remember that the last time I was actually shocked by the death of a celebrity was in 1997, when Princess Diana had her fatal car accident. Whatever people may say about her, at the time, I was saddened that the world had lost someone who was, at least on the surface, kind, benevolent, and a humanitarian, but more than that, who put an approachable face on the Aristocracy. Now with the recent passing of Steven P. Jobs, I felt the same: that the world had in fact suffered a loss.

But this time, for me, it was more personal. I first heard of Steve Jobs when I was 13 years old; I'd just used my first Apple Macintosh, and my brother and I were both computer nerds (we still are), who were avid followers of industry gossip. Steve Jobs had just been kicked out of Apple, the company he founded, and replaced as CEO. Rumour had it that he had just been too difficult to work with, too demanding, too arrogant. He shrugged it off, and went on to found two new companies - NeXT Computer and later, Pixar. For those who don't know (yes, believe it or not, some people don't know) - Pixar makes those 3D cartoons like Toy Story.

Skip forward to 1997, again, and Apple had recently hired Jobs back; the company was in dire trouble. Their share price had dropped to below $20. Their products were beige uninspiring boxes, their operating system couldn't multitask, and Microsoft looked ready to destroy them at any moment. People were predicting that the company would close very soon.

It didn't happen. Jobs' return was nothing short of the salvation of the company. It was followed by a string of successes; the first iMac, the iPod, the iTunes store, the legalisation of music downloads, the iPhone, and then, the iPad.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Steve Jobs took computers, which in 1978, were unusable, and made them ever more usable. Even his own company's product - the Apple II, was clunky. He pushed for the Lisa - named after his daughter - and then the Macintosh. He caused an internal civil war at Apple - the Apple II team versus the Mac team. The Mac team won. The graphical interface was popularised. Microsoft Windows soon followed. Then, in creating the NeXT computer, he effectively simultaneously created Apple's future. System 7 - the Mac Operating System that was available at the time he was hired back into Apple - was old. It couldn't multitask and didn't have proper multiple users. It crashed a lot. In effect, it was much like Windows 95. Just more user-friendly. He brought the NeXT-derived operating system, OpenStep, with him, and that formed the basis of the modern Mac OS - Mac OS X - the system I'm using right now. It also formed the basis of iOS - the operating system that would later power the iPhone and iPad devices.

Shortly after the iPad was released, I was muttering about how it wouldn't take off. Clearly, I lack Steve's understanding of human beings. People apparently _do_ want devices that are super-easy to use, and understand. I'm a programmer. I need sophisticated capabilities. The iPad does appeal to me, but only for browsing the web or reading a book. I would still need a Mac OS X/NeXTStep/OpenStep underbelly and commandline to do my work. But here's the point: Steve knew that people really don't want to understand how computers work - they just want them to work. That is what he created in the iPad. Since I have witnessed its increasing popularity, I have come to realise that the desktop PC is dead, and that tablets like the iPad are going to dominate computing for the next ten years at least.

So in effect, Steve Jobs has defined computing since 1978 - everyone else has merely followed his lead. The man was nothing short of a visionary genius. Today (or yesterday, depending on your time zone), is one of the saddest days in world history. Because the question is now open as to whether Apple will continue on its winning streak. It went from a few dollars a share to well over $300, and that is after several stock splits. It's now more valuable than Exxon Mobil, or the combined might of Microsoft and Google. My guess is that Apple must lose some of its shine; it does, and will to a large extent into the near future, derive its vision and focus from the personality cult that surrounded Steve. All we can hope is that somewhere in the ranks of Apple, someone else with his eye for design and usability will come forward. We can only wait and see.

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