Entelligence: The death of the PC is greatly exaggerated (at least for now)

Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.

In one of the great blunders of journalism, Mark Twain once found his name listed in the obituary column. His famous reply, "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated," has forever become part of our lexicon for describing hyperbole. Yet, at a certain point in time, Mark Twain's death was no longer exaggeration and Samuel Clemens did indeed pass away. Today, many are lamenting the passing of the personal computer as the information device of choice for the masses of consumers, and like Mark Twain, the news of its death is greatly exaggerated. But like all good things, the PC and its complex operating system foundation will also eventually come to an end. Here's why the PC isn't dead yet but over time might no longer be the dominant platform for the digital age.

We've heard about the death of the PC for years. The internet, Java, and network computers all laid claim to killing the PC. Today, it's all about internet tablets and smartphones. Each has had a turn in the sun as the poster child for killing the PC, but the fact remains that the PC is alive and well. Traditional PC vendors still ship systems in record numbers even in this down economy, and the reason is simple: the PC is the ultimate Swiss army knife for information technology. Want the Internet -- with rich content, applications that live in the cloud, and the latest browser technology? Well, you need a PC. Need to access corporate information, communicate and collaborate with others? That's PC work as well. Even entertainment functions like gaming, managing music and photo collections, and social networking are still PC territory.

Unless you are willing to live with a subset of dedicated functionality, most consumers are going to want and need a PC. And while the Swiss army knife delivers a multitude of functions but does none of them well, the PC is both the jack of all trades and master of everything. For office productivity use, internet access, entertainment and communication the PC remains unrivaled in terms of its abilities. But that doesn't mean that the PC will live forever.

PCs have historically tracked two paths: 1) enhanced sophistication and functionality and 2) increased complexity. While empowered by new features, users have also contended with growing complexity that often obscures the task at hand. However, this trade-off has been better for most users -- that's why challenges to the PC like the stripped-down Network Computer have failed over the years. However, it's not hard to argue that PCs are becoming more complex than necessary and that other devices are offering simpler modes of operation and steadily increasing functionality are getting closer to crossing that magical "it's good enough" line. Today's smartphones are showing signs of reaching this point in the near future -- there's a growing class of user that leaves their laptop behind on occasion. The very flexibility of the PC that enables so many new tasks and functions may ultimately become its downfall. PCs are simply getting too complex, difficult and expensive for most consumers to master and maintain.

The key to any transition to life beyond the PC will be the ability of vendors to balance technology and features against complexity and functionality. We may see whole new classes of devices emerge that can take on the task of the PC in more elegant and easier to use ways. But that's for the future. For now, it's a PC dominated world.

Have you tried to replace a PC in your daily life yet? If you have, successfully or not, drop me a line and tell me about the experience.

Michael Gartenberg is vice president of strategy and analysis at Interpret, LLC. His weblog can be found at, and he can be emailed at gartenberg AT gmail DOT com. Views expressed here are his own.