One Farhad Manjoo has attracted some attention by projecting in an article written for Slate that desktop PCs are headed for extinction, outcompeted by laptops and netbooks.
I have seen the future and I say “Balderdash!” It is undoubtedly true that computers will continue to get smaller and lighter and more portable. Indeed, I’m expecting that for most people, descendants of smartphones will become their primary computing devices. I am, however also certain that this does not imply the demise of “desktop” systems.
Manjoo, and other enthusiasts for the imminent death of the desktop PC, are missing a basic ergonomic point. Computers themselves could shrink to the size of a matchbox without inconveniencing anyone – but some of the things attached to them are scaled to humans and don’t shrink so easily. Of these, the two most significant are display screens and keyboards.
The kind of tiny display that will fit on a smartphone is just barely usable for browsing the Web, provided you’re willing to accept some inconveniences like not having an actual mouse. Tiny keyboards are OK for tiny amounts of text. We accept these inconveniences in a smartphone because it has to fit in a pocket.
But, for steady use, there are no good substitutes for having at least 1K by 1K pixels on a display large enough to mostly fill your visual field, and a full-size/full-travel keyboard. Furthermore, being able to adjust the position of your keyboard and monitor separately can be pretty important if you want to avoid a stiff neck and other posture-related aches and pains.
These ergonomic constraints can’t be satisfied by anything in a smartphone, netbook, or laptop package. Instead, I expect that human-sized peripherals will begin to decouple from ever-tinier computers. As I’ve previously projected, there will be a growing market for human-scale peripherals meant to be slaved to a computing core that you walk up to them, using a USB docking cradle or some analogous technology.
There’s a conceptual error in projections like Manjoo’s, that of thinking of a “computer” as an indissoluble lump that has to bundle together all of the hardware capabilities we associate with a PC. But human needs are more various than that. In the future, the hardware to meet them will be too.