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Oh My Tech: The (possible) death of the PC

By Vince Horiuchi

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published Dec 19 2013 01:01 am • Last Updated Dec 20 2013 04:34 pm

Is the home PC taking up a lot of room and a thing of the past? Do I [throw it away]? Thanks.

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As Bill Murray said in the movie "Stripes," "And then . . . depression set in."

This is one of the saddest questions I’ve had to answer. That’s because it reminds me of the possibility that one day desktop computers may fade off into the horizon like 8-track cassettes and VHS decks.

That’s a shame for me on a couple of levels. For one, some of the best and most gorgeous video games I’ve ever played and still play today are for the PC, not a video game console or a tablet. Secondly, a desktop computer is the still way to get the most powerful computing at home. While you may not need that kind of power for everyday tasks like surfing the web or writing emails, it’s still the best hardware for getting complex jobs done like video editing and desktop publishing. Oh, and of course, it’s best for gaming.

But the fact is, desktop computing has been on a steady decline, first due to laptop computers and then mobile computing. As mobile devices such as the iPhone, iPad and Android devices become more powerful, the need for desktop computers wanes.

Sales continue to show that this year will be the worst ever for desktop computers, according to research firms IDC and Gartner. Third-quarter sales for PC desktops dropped 8.6 percent from the same period last year, according to Gartner. IDC reported the decline was closer to 5.6 percent. Every quarter this year has reported a decline in PC sales compared to the same period last year. Meanwhile, Gartner reported that sales of Apple’s Mac desktop computers also declined 2.3 percent.

Those figures are actually a little better than what those research firms predicted the third quarter would have been, but the numbers are still shrinking.

Earlier this year, IDC predicted that the sales of computer tablets like the iPad would finally overtake the sales of laptops by the end of the year and all of the PC market by 2015.

There’s no question that the evolution of smartphones and tablets are the biggest factor for why desktop sales are sagging. Most people find that for their daily tasks, a mobile device is powerful and flexible enough. Even businesses are turning to tablets for their employees instead of desktop PCs.

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But there’s another big reason PC sales are declining — Windows 8. Microsoft was hoping the newest version of its Windows operating system would be a game changer. Instead, it was mostly met with disappointment.

Microsoft made a big decision: Thinking about the move to mobile devices, the company designed Windows 8 to be an operating system for both desktop and laptop computers and tablets. So it did away with the typical icons and directory tree of older versions of Windows in favor of the "Metro"-style interface of tiles, similar to the one used for the Xbox 360 and the new Xbox One. It’s also the same interface for the Windows Phone platform. Microsoft also designed Windows 8 for touchscreens, again pointing to the merging of desktop computers and mobile devices.

Except fans of Windows looked at the new interface and gasped. It was too different, confusing and difficult to use. So much so that Microsoft put out a big update — Windows 8.1 — that made it easier to go back to the old Windows XP and 7 interface.

But the damage was already done. Microsoft’s hopes that the new Windows would reignite the sales of PCs were dashed. Instead, they’ve continued to drop.

Now that I’ve expressed my innermost emotions about the possible death of the PC, let’s go back to Dave’s question.

Whether he should throw away his computer or not really depends on how powerful and new it is and whether it still gets the jobs done that he uses it for. If it is newer, then it still must be a fairly powerful machine, and it’s worth keeping. But more importantly, if it still performs the tasks that he uses it for, perhaps he can keep it awhile longer. If those tasks have been replaced by a laptop or a mobile device like a tablet, then perhaps he can use the desktop for another reason, like as a second computer at home for the kids or for calculating home finances.

If he should decide to dump the whole thing, it’s best not to just throw it away but to call up his local county government office and see what kind of electronic recycling program they have and give it to them. That way, some of the toxic chemicals in the computer won’t make their way into a landfill.

As long as their are very complex tasks at home and work that require super computing power, we’ll always have a need for desktop computers. And how else am I going to save the universe from attacking aliens?

If you have a tech question for Vince, email him at ohmytech@sltrib.com, and he’ll try to answer it for his column in The Salt Lake Tribune or on its website. For an archive of past columns, go to www.sltrib.com/Topics/ohmytech.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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