07:06 AM

Deja View: The Post-PC Era ...

Linley Gwennap is one of the most respected analysts in the microprocessor industry who has closely followed the industry for more than 15 years.

By Linley Gwennap (via Intel Free Press)

Pundits are positing a new era in which tablet computers and smartphones will become our primary method of computing, displacing the PC from our lives. Some even expect the PC to go the way of dinosaurs like the minicomputer and the mainframe, which, as we all know, were displaced by the PC itself. This coming post-PC era will, of course, be disastrous for Intel and other chip makers that depend on PC sales.

The only problem with this story is none of it is true. Whenever a new technology appears, the easy story is how it will take over the world: a story abetted by the vendors of said new technology. Tablets are the flavor of the month, but their effect on PC shipments remains in doubt.

The concept of a post-PC era is not new. The phrase first came into vogue a decade ago during the dot-com bubble. The shiny new Internet, they said, would obsolete PCs because it would connect to set-top boxes, cars, refrigerators, and other cool things. A few years later, someone noticed that cell phones were approaching a billion units a year-about five times the annual sales of PCs. Surely this incredible success meant that cell phones would replace PCs.

It didn't quite happen that way. Cell phones continue to sell like hot cakes, but PCs have been hot as well: shipments have more than doubled in 10 years. This growth has been aided by declining PC prices and a shift to laptops, which provide users with mobility for their computing. Sales have particularly increased among cell-phone-toting consumers, who use their PCs to access a wide variety of Internet services. The very things that were expected to kill the PC have only made it stronger.

Smartphones and tablets are the newest challengers. Unlike dumb phones, smartphones can access the Internet, reducing the need for traditional PCs, and they offer more mobility than laptops. Since the iPhone's debut in 2007, however, PC shipments have surged from 270 million units per year to 320 million.

Tablet computers offer a faster CPU and a larger screen than smartphones, providing a bridge between handheld devices and full-fledged laptop PCs. These capabilities give tablets a better shot at replacing some PCs. Indeed, in the most recent quarter, PC shipments rose "only" 3% from the previous quarter, just as tablet (iPad) shipments were taking off. I expect many PC users will purchase a tablet this year, mostly to get an extra machine to use around the house or when traveling. But even if only a few tablet purchases displace PCs, PC shipments could slow and eventually decline.

With their larger screens, physical keyboards, and more-powerful processors, however, PCs will continue to play an important role in content creation. Tablets, and their vast array of apps, are optimized for content consumption, which is all many of us want while we're lounging on the sofa. So who needs to create content? Just about any office worker, for starters; PCs are unlikely to disappear from businesses. Students are likely to prefer PCs for lengthy assignments. Even consumers are increasingly creating blogs, slide shows, and digital video-all tasks that are better suited to a PC than a tablet.

Keep in mind that mainframes and minicomputers never really disappeared. More than eight million minicomputers shipped last year; nowadays, we call them servers. The server market, in fact, is much bigger than it was when PCs first emerged, and it continues to grow strongly. Mainframes, you might recall, were big computers that connected to dumb terminals. Today's hottest trend is cloud computing, in which applications and data storage are moved out of the client and into the "cloud." That's right; the cloud is the new mainframe.

Similarly, PCs are unlikely to disappear no matter how successful tablets, smartphones, and other devices become. Their growth may slow, and they may become less important, but hundreds of millions will continue to ship every year. PCs might become obsolete someday if flawless voice recognition abolishes the need for keyboards, if pocket-size devices connect wirelessly and automatically to any nearby display, and if all of this can happen using a one-watt processor. Until then, Intel and other PC-chip makers will have plenty of business.