Reports of PC’s Impending Death Greatly Exaggerated

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.

89 thoughts on “Reports of PC’s Impending Death Greatly Exaggerated

  1. Yeah, certainly what we think of as ‘desktops’ (a computer connected to a full, not-especially-portable keyboard/mouse/monitor setup) won’t go away. I’m not so sure, though, that traditional tower computers will go away entirely, either. The fastest tower PC will always be faster than the fastest smartphone, and there will always be some people who want as much computing power as is available. Potential applications are really high-end games, decoding/playing of absurdly hi-definition movies, and things that you’d use a server for, like serving of services, and also simulation and brute force cryptanalysis. I think it’s likely, though, that the smartphone-plus-terminal setup might well become the average user’s major computing device.

  2. Ask anyone who fixes computers: laptops break if you look at them funny. Meanwhile, businesses buy giant piles of pcs, then sell them for cheap. Result: you can get an okay Dell for 50$. A mediocre laptop will cost 300-500$, and break.

    All prices from Peoria.

  3. 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

    Your keyboard/mouse will connect via Bluetooth and your displays might use WiDi or something similar, so that you don’t even have to plug in physically. Your cellphone/portable computer could stay in your pocket the whole time if it’s done right.

  4. I will gladly trade my mediocre laptop for enough cash to repair my desktop. I thought I was doing the “modern” thing buying a laptop. All the grandchildren have them. Look at the clutter you will get rid of, they told me. No monitor, no speakers and you can clean your desk off. Well, I do have more space on the desk, but not for long. I am returning to the desktop and will keep watch for a $50. Dell or Compaq, whichever comes my way first.

  5. I got rid of my laptop years ago and I prefer having good old desktop PC with at least 22-inch screen on the workplace and home.

    The huge screen means big comfort for regular program-and-surf activities. I am already thinking about substituting the 22-inch with 26 or more.

  6. On about screens and keyboards again? A screen is just something to stimulate your retina and a keyboard is just a dance your fingers do to make language. (And a fairly queerty dance it is.) We could adapt to new stimulation and learn new dances, if we could only overcome our inertia. We won’t, but my kids, wandering around staring into air while their thumbs twiddle iPods, will.

  7. While I have plenty of quibbles with the article in question, the basic thrust of it is probably right.. but probably for the wrong reasons.

    First laptops: in general, laptops are ridiculous and this is one big reason why the iPad is such a huge hit. Far too many people who have laptops have them for the wrong reason: they couldn’t afford both a desktop and a laptop, so they decided to go with the laptop because it seemed the most flexible. But they are horrible things to do real work on. And they are also far more computer than is necessary for many field jobs where portability (and low cost) are paramount. A great example of this is police officers; they’ve all got laptops in their cars. I’ve spoken to several officers about this and generally they only use a single app (for dispatch.) But they have complete, full-functioning versions of Windows installed, and frequently Office as well! Not to mention huge hard-drives. And everything else that makes the price rise.

    I’ve long thought that the predicted rise of the laptop over the desktop was a wrong prediction. For all the reasons ESR notes, the desktop is better for real work.

    But, nevertheless, the desktop is probably headed for marginalization. But that’s different from extinction.

    Simple fact: why did most consumers buy a computer in the late 1990s and why do most of them buy them today? What’s the leading use?

    Internet access. After that, media storage.

    The reason many people have desktop computers (or laptops) is for those two reasons alone. Not everyone, of course. But a lot of them. And there are a lot of people who would like to access the internet but are intimidated by current desktop computers.

    Techies make a huge mistake in looking at technology: they regard its worth in terms of how they currently use things or how people they know and support use things. Thus there seems to be an inverse relationship between techie knowledge and the ability to even comprehend what an iPad is. A techie looks at an iPad and regards the lack of a friggin’ USB port or the ability to run Flash as some kind of a drawback. He find the device pointless. In his inability to understand things outside of his limited perspective, he insists that it must all be some reality-distortion field hype mania from which his superior knowledge somehow makes him immune.

    And yet people who WANT to get on the internet but find computers to be intimidating complicated seem to instinctively grasp that the iPad is a better way to do what they want: surf, look at stuff, share.

    The desktop PC is a powerful, do everything device. It will still be around. But in terms of sheer numbers it’s going to be marginalized. A big industry, sure. Lots of people still using them, of course. But we are going to see these other devices reach into places and into the lives of people that aren’t yet being reached by desktops or laptops. And these other devices will dwarf desktops in numbers.

  8. Reminds me of those who claimed decades ago that in the future computers would talk to us and we would talke to them. They missed quite a few important things too.
    In most environments it makes perfectly sense to have the human – computer interface in a different domain than the human – human interface…

  9. However, one thing might have escaped ESR. While we humans do need to have our human interface components to be of certain size, we don’t need them to be physical. A screen that appears big to the eye doesn’t have to be physically big. It could also be something that is projected straight on to your retina. What about a virtual touch screen or keyboard?

  10. My wish is to be able to use a full size keyboard and display on my iphone. As soon as I can get a smartphone that will allow both, I’m trading in my iphone for it.

    It is very nice to be able to use the iphone as a stand-alone comm device, but if I could use a full size keyboard and/or display, I’d keep a set handy at home and the office. A KVM would be ideal. I don’t need the resolution to be any better than the current screen, though obviously I’d appreciate more pixels.

    TO: Marian Kechlibar: I agree, but save yourself time and just jump straight to 32″ or so. Or even combine it with a home entertainment screen. Trust me, it’s a good move! Our eyes aren’t getting any younger, and a larger screen lets us sit farther away and not get our eyes so cramped with up close focusing.

  11. Along the same lines as K’s retina projection, it’s conceivable that subvocal input, or something analogous, could become so good as to replace keyboards.

  12. @K Good idea… but there are ergonomical problems with both of those solutions.

    Screen

    There might be problem with screen projected on your retina, namely eyestrain. Having large physical monitor (or three), put in large anough distance would be always more ergonomic, in my opinion. Think about how you would do moving eye to other area of display, or moving eye off the screen (e.g. to take a look at notes, or something).

    To have e.g. screen as projection on the wall, you are trading one problem for the other. Now you have to have large anough area of wall-like display free to project your display onto.

    Keyboard

    There exists devices that display (I think using laser) virtual keyboard on flat surface. There are however problems with this solution. First you don’t have tactile feedback, so e.g. touch typing would be much more difficult (even with audio feedback telling you when the key was accepted as pressed, similar to the shutter sound generated for (smart)phone cameras). You would need to have hard flat surface with appropriate properties. I also guess that you would be much more suspectible to RSI: fake keyboard is not very ergonomical. But this is somehing that smartphones can have as small peripheral, or even built in.

    There alse exist small rollable / foldable keyboards made of rubber / soft plastic / silicone. You have, I guess, some tactile feedback (like in ZX Spectrum / membrane keyboard times), but not as good as in ordinary keyboard. You need flat surface to unroll it, and the size of it isn’t that much smaller.

    I wonder if virtual reality gloves with force and tactile feedback would help there…

  13. >A screen that appears big to the eye doesn’t have to be physically big. It could also be something that is projected straight on to your retina. What about a virtual touch screen or keyboard?

    OK, let’s think about these. First, the retina projector. In order for it to make efficient use of your visual field it’s going to need to subtend a fixed visual angle (of at least 90 degrees), which means size and weight will scale up as the cosine of distance from your eye (actually weight will go up as square of the cosine, since it’s proportional to screen area).

    The reason this is a problem is because close focus is fatiguing. I suspect that a display far enough from your eyeball to be comfortable has to be too heavy and awkward to be mounted on a headset. Thus, conventional displays at longer distance win.

    Virtual keyboards have several problems: lack of tactile feedback, poor cushioning of the fingertips, (potentially) unpleasant typing angles for the hand and arm. By the time you’ve specialized your projection surface to fix all these, it might as well be a keyboard.

    UPDATE: Heh. I see Jacob Narebski was writing similar things at the exact same time as me.

  14. Sidenote: in a novel (“Pieprzony los Kataryniarza”) by RafaÅ‚ A. Ziemkiewicz, a Polish political fiction and science fiction author, the main character uses a kind of virtual reality glove, reading (if I understand it correctly) muscle tension or even electric potential of nerves leading to muscles (this is possible with current technology). Instead using virtual keyboard, as his colleaugues, the main character uses “sub-vocalized” (only beginnings of movement) sign language. I wonder how useful would that be in real life (besides having to learn letters of sign language).

  15. All good and nice. There are solutions that project your desktop directly on your glasses. So why retina projectors?
    Technology will evolve and jeah, maybe the projected keyboard will make its point. But it is only usefull depending on what you do and where you are. A keyboard allways reacts the way it should, if it is hot or cold or dark or if you can’t see it. You still can type it.
    And for the last, the wireless approach only works if we expect radio waves to work as they should. But if mother nature decides that there should be some magnetic interference due to some plasma blasts on our beloved star called sun, then there is not much left of any mobile connection like mobile phone, wireless connection e.g.
    So physically attached devices will allways have their place.

  16. @esr:

    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.

    Almost there. The EVO 4G has an HDMI port and can display video at 720p. And Microsoft makes a $50 full-size blue tooth wireless keyboard.

    Of course, it’s not anything close 1024×1024, but give it a couple of years and they’ll do that.

    I still think you’re overlooking several uses of desktop PCs that aren’t going to translate well to mobile devices, such as desktop A/V production and 3D CAD.

  17. I don’t think “virtual displays” would have eye fatigue issues. What matters is not where the image is originated, it’s where your brain thinks it is. VR Glasses for example will “project” a display at a comfortable distance, all while being just a few cm away from your eyes.

    In Vernor Vinge’s “A Deepness in the Sky” the computer/ human interface consists of little nano motes that get in to your eyes and stimulate it directly…

  18. Leif hit all the high points. PCs aren’t going away; hackers, office drones, and maybe high-end gamers will still use them. (It will be tough to make a case for PCs in gaming, going forward, because of piracy; unless some universal, standard, completely unobtrusive (unless you steal software) DRM scheme is implemented.)

    But for the vast bulk of the population, an iPad will suffice, and it gets the job done much better, with nearly zero risk of malware.

  19. I think subvocal voice recognition will quickly teach you not to mutter to yourself. Or to turn it off.

    Try the Chordite, though John W. McKown really needs some help from a mechanical engineer.

  20. I used to be sure about the future of the keyboard and mouse… but last week I noticed that while my 7 and 9-year-old kids prefer that interface, the 3-year-old is totally fluent with a touchscreen. Yes, that’s obviously an easier interface at that age, but I really do think now that that age group will regard that as the natural interface. I need to stock up on IBM Model Ms.

  21. One more problem with retina projectors:

    You need perfect vision (or perfectly corrected vision) or else your projected image will be distorted by your eye’s lens. Projecting through a pair of glasses will probably fail; contact lenses might still work, depending upon the sort of correction involved. Astigmatism will probably defeat any retina projector.

  22. Try the Chordite, though John W. McKown really needs some help from a mechanical engineer.

    And a manufacturing engineer, an industrial designer, and maybe an electrical engineer. That thing has more problems than it solves.

  23. I’m stuck with using a laptop, but for extensive writing and editing, I really miss Apple’s old desktop keyboard. I don’t remember its designation, but it was what you got with a PowerMac circa 1996. That keyboard was a delight — tactile, responsive, and it had special purpose buttons for all the common operations, plus a numeric key pad.

    By nature, long habit, and orneryness, I’m a two-finger, heavy-on-the-keys typist, and the sad keyboards that come on laptops are just irritating beyond measure.

    Don’t like touchscreens — too imprecise, not to mention the accumulation of fingerprints.

  24. I know I’m not the typical PC user, but I can’t even imagine abandoning my desktop. No portable device will ever have a third as much screen space(I’m on two monitors, and might get a third if I ever scare up the cash), will ever be half as comfortable to use, or will ever be anywhere near as effective at playing games. By the time you plugged enough peripherals into a laptop to make me happy with it, it’s turned into a desktop.

    Now all I have to do is make sure that a hundred million or so other people feel the same way, so that the manufacturers and designers don’t all go out of business.

  25. >(It will be tough to make a case for PCs in gaming, going forward, because of piracy; unless some universal, standard, completely unobtrusive (unless you steal software) DRM scheme is implemented.)

    I’m not sure about this. Mostly or entirely DRM-free games, such as Lugaru and the Humble Indie Bundle from Overgrowth, have done quite well. I know less about major-sponsor games’ numbers, but I doubt that piracy is going to make PC gaming a nonviable industry. It probably would have already, if it was going to, and we still have PC games.

  26. Update on the supposedly iPhone-killing feature of wifi tethering: Verizon just announced their latest new FroYo phone: Tethering is $20/month extra for only 2GB.

    Aside from this, it continues the recent trend of ludicrously huge phones. For most people, the iPhone is already a large phone, and the latest crop of Android phones is far larger. No thanks!

  27. Aside from this, it continues the recent trend of ludicrously huge phones. For most people, the iPhone is already a large phone, and the latest crop of Android phones is far larger. No thanks!

    I disagree. Having used a “huge” Evo 4g, I’d have to say that the current crop of iPhones are too small. But then again, I have somewhat larger-than-average hands and fingers. (Which is why I, too, love the IBM Model M. :)

  28. @Robert Burnham:

    I really miss Apple’s old desktop keyboard. I don’t remember its designation, but it was what you got with a PowerMac circa 1996. That keyboard was a delight — tactile, responsive, and it had special purpose buttons for all the common operations, plus a numeric key pad.

    Try one of one of these. I’ve heard that if you ask for it, they’ll give you a set of Mac keycaps. to replace the “Windows” keycaps.

  29. By nature, long habit, and orneryness, I’m a two-finger, heavy-on-the-keys typist, and the sad keyboards that come on laptops are just irritating beyond measure.

    You may like this. Sleek, stylish, and with buckling-spring action that resembles the Model M of yesteryear without the added bulk. I could type all day on one.

    As for laptop keyboards — recent ThinkPads have nice good stiff boards. Not much in the way of key travel but the action resists your fingers until the final moment.

    I am not a keyboard-layout bigot: the Dvorak snobs have yet to make a case that their preferred layout is, by any measure outside their own subjective preference, superior enough to QWERTY to warrant a transition on my part. But I am a key-action bigot. Your board had better be stiff and robust like Mama’s old Selectric, or my hands are going to twist up into gnarled claws on it.

  30. Jeff said:

    “the Dvorak snobs have yet to make a case that their preferred layout is, by any measure outside their own subjective preference, superior enough to QWERTY to warrant a transition on my part.”

    Here’s the issue with Dvorak on a PC: What people seem to forget is that typists used to generally just copy stuff. In that context, typing speed is very important. But in situations like, posting on a blog or composing an email, the causes of delay are compositional.

    Early IBM PCs needed a high feedback keyboard because they were used by typewriters: people were doing a lot of input off of printed pages. We have OCR these days, so sheer typing speed isn’t nearly as important.

  31. Leif:
    “But in situations like, posting on a blog or composing an email, the causes of delay are compositional. ”
    If all you have to do is post on a blog, or compose an email, why are we even discussing keyboard layouts? When seriously coding or writing, a great part of the job is still typing, even with intellisense.

    Jeff:
    “the Dvorak snobs have yet to make a case that their preferred layout is, by any measure outside their own subjective preference, superior enough to QWERTY to warrant a transition on my part.”
    Far as I heard, Dvorak actually took the time to identify common letter couples and did studies. Dvorak is better for me because it reduced the strain on my fingers and wrists, not necessarily because I started type faster.

  32. @Craig Trader:
    “One more problem with retina projectors: You need perfect vision (or perfectly corrected vision) or else your projected image will be distorted by your eye’s lens. ”

    What you say is true of a small virtual screen projected in front of the eye, not a retina projector. The retina projector could adjust focus to duplicate what glasses do, it’s all about where the focus lands relative to the retina and the projector has full control over that.

  33. I’m a bit confused.

    I’m not a gamer, but I am a Linux/Unix/VMware administrator and a rather heavy computer user. I currently have 3 monitors on my primary work machine, and off-and-on another monitor (and CPU) available via Synergy. (One on the laptop itself that I don’t really use much, one on the docking station, and one on a USB->Video dongle).

    My primary machine is a Dell D420. I have a full sized Dell desktop keyboard and a Logitech Trackball on my desk that I use when sitting here.

    If I need to move I hit the disconnect button (which works badly) and take a 12 inch, very portable machine with me that contains almost all of what I need. (backups and archives are on a USB drive attached to the docking station).

    Now, the D420 isn’t a speed demon by modern standards, but a Dual Core 1.2Ghz. CPU with 2 GiB of ram is certainly sufficient for my day-to-day tasks. My next computer will be another laptop, probably a Dell or an IBM uh Lenovo with a docking station and 8 GiB of ram.

    If by “desktop” computer you mean “Large monitor that the user can set to his preferred height and angle, keyboard that is full sized and a set of attached peripherals”, then no, it will not go away for most people.

    If you mean “Large box that sits on or next to the desk and does nothing but house components”, then it’s probably not headed for extinction, but I think you will increasingly see machines that are integrated into the keyboard (ala C64/Vic20 and some amigas IIRC) or monitors (some iMacs, some Sonys). Apple and Dell seem to sell enough of hte mini form factor to make it profitable for them.

    I do think that large tower machines will continue to shrink in volume, but the modder/gamer/small penis segment will continue to prefer them.

  34. Adriano said: “When seriously coding or writing, a great part of the job is still typing, even with intellisense.”

    Yes, it’s typing. But it’s not transcribing: looking at a printed sheet and typing in the inputs. The really fast typists from the past were basically transcribing.

  35. Maybe I’m strange, but I actually prefer (some, mainly Apple, pre chiclet) laptop keyboards. I like the short travel and the small spacing between keys. The keys still have to be full sized (I really don’t like the Aspire One keyboard I’m typing on now) but otherwise, I find I’m a much faster typer and have much less pain and soreness after a long typing bout on a laptop keyboard.

  36. I’m thinking the desktop is dying as a personal computing device. It’s going to stick around for office/lab uses as well as some power users, but notebooks & netbooks are where people are moving.

    Sure, you want the big display, real keyboard & mouse and lots of storage at home. Just plug them into your notebook. Works just fine. Docking stations are available for those with somewhat more robust needs like myself (2 printers, 2 external HDD’s, 2 scanners, card reader, iPod, keyboard, mouse, tablet, cell phone, ethernet, speakers and monitor currently plugged into my HP docking station)

    Smartphone/iPad devices? Far too limited UI-wise for even general computing use. I’d expect the real dominant player will be the netbook (and I’m already seeing people go over). They’re small enough and cheap enough to carry everywhere and have more than enough computing power & storage for general use. I’ll take any netbook over an iPad or smartphone if I have to type more than a very occasional email on it. 3G/4G native netbooks may be the next wave, I’m already seeing netbook/rocketstick combos being sold on the major carriers here in Canada and the next step is going to be mini-PCI rocketsticks.

    I think the next step is for somebody to develop a netbook docking station with additional processing power and RAM in addition to peripheral support. I’d switch to a netbook over my 16″ laptop in a new york minute if I could have the docking station give me the 8GB of RAM, fast multi-core processor and high-end GPU that I need when working docked but don’t terribly want to haul around, switching between a desktop and laptop however means data syncing issues I’d rather not deal with and my data set size means that online storage isn’t a solution (I’m dealing with 2GB+ minimum data sets).

    As to $50 cheap desktops, they exist now because few people want a low-end desktop.

  37. Ask anyone who fixes computers: laptops break if you look at them funny.

    Only if you’re buying the flimsy crap that the Dells, HPs, and Sonys of the world are selling. Over on the Mac side, where there’s still enough gross margin to support a quality product, you can get machines that will work just fine for a decade if you want.

  38. close focus is fatiguing.

    Which is why you’d use a lens to move the apparent distance out a foot or two. This is a problem that video camera makers solved a long time ago for their viewfinders.

  39. I love my pre-chiclet MBP keyboard. I think that Model M users simply have trained to use far too much force when typing; why expend extra effort? My fingers barely move at all when I type. (Thanks, Dvorak!) I’ve heard that musicians raised on contact-switch keyboard prefer them to fully-weighted keyboards: they’re better for fast rhythms.

    Over on the Mac side, where there’s still enough gross margin to support a quality product, you can get machines that will work just fine for a decade if you want.

    Big Mac fan speaking here: This isn’t true. Both from personal experience and the statistics I’ve seen (Consumer Reports), Mac and Lenovo lead the industry, but not by a large margin.

    Mac desktops, on the other hand, are as good as their hard-drives.

  40. The value in a stiff, high-feedback keyboard is to know if you’ve hit the key. Again, this goes back to transcribing. If you’re looking at some document and not the final product, you need a keyboard with a lot of feedback. This was important on commercial typewriters and very important on the first generation of PCs as a lot of people sitting at them were doing data input.

    If you’re looking at the screen of your computer as you type, the clickety feedback isn’t as important.

    I was once enamored with IBM keyboards. But now i found the thin Apple keyboards to be absolutely ideal. There’s simply far less energy and motion expended for the same amount of input.

  41. One issue which I think didn’t came up here: you can upgrade desktop PC piecemeal (you can add RAM, add or switch HDD, add or switch optical disk drive, get better graphics card, get better audio card, get better network card, add USB ports, etc.); it is easier with roomier case, like tower or mini-tower case, it is very difficult on laptops (you can add memory, switch HDD (if any), switch optical disk drive (if any)), and it is impossible on smartphones (perhaps add memory / SDD disk on a card).

  42. @Adam Maas and William:

    I’m thinking the desktop is dying as a personal computing device. It’s going to stick around for office/lab uses as well as some power users, but notebooks & netbooks are where people are moving.

    Well, they’ve been predicting the death of the desktop ever since the first laptops appeared in the 1980s. I’m still waiting… Note that like esr, I have both a desktop and a laptop.

    @Some Guy:

    Only if you’re buying the flimsy crap that the Dells, HPs, and Sonys of the world are selling. Over on the Mac side, where there’s still enough gross margin to support a quality product, you can get machines that will work just fine for a decade if you want.

    Definitely not true. That’s never ever been true of Apple laptops. I know people who do warranty service on Apple equipment. I agree with Dave McCabe about Apple desktops; they are pretty well-made, but that’s definitely not exclusive to Apple. I can point to more than one place where there are corporate-line Dell and HP desktops in use as non-critical servers, running 24×7, that are at least 10 years old. Personally, I build all my desktops, but I haven’t ever held on to them in one configuration for 10 years; but I can report that in the 20 years I’ve been building them, I’ve only had 2 total HDD failures and one motherboard failure. No other failures due to hardware. (Well, one optical drive failure due to bad math in adding up the PSU requirements…oops. ;)

    @Jakub N

    One issue which I think didn’t came up here: you can upgrade desktop PC piecemeal

    You and I might do that, but the vast majority of people don’t. They throw out the whole machine and buy a new one ever 2-3 years, on average. Sad, really.

  43. @Morgan:

    @Jakub N

    One issue which I think didn’t came up here: you can upgrade desktop PC piecemeal

    You and I might do that, but the vast majority of people don’t. They throw out the whole machine and buy a new one ever 2-3 years, on average. Sad, really.

    True, and if you wait long enough to upgrade, what you thought was just a, say, processor swap, is now processor + mobo + new cards that substitute the ones that don’t work anymore with the new Port2010PlusExtraExpress interface, because they used Port2009PlusExtra slots. Upgrading piecemeal is harder than it sounds.

  44. @ Morgan Greywolf — Thanks for the tip and the link. Several years ago, I tried a “full-feature” 3rd-party keyboard that did have the Mac keys in the old Mac layout. However, the keys made this “bonging” sound when struck — and I do strike the keys, not tap or caress them. (Hey look, I’ll never get carpal tunnel syndrome.) Anyway, that noise proved unacceptable, and believe me, I tried to accustom myself to it.

    At this point, because I travel and need to bring the computer with me, laptops are it for the foreseeable future. And I don’t want to try to switch back and forth between keyboard layouts — too much hassle, and I’m resistant to new mental programming anyway. (There’s a part of me that’s still banging away on a 1940s-era desktop Royal typewriter, with the glass windows on the side…)

    I’m just glad Apple — knock wood — makes laptops with keybards that are robust enough to survive three or four years of pounding by me. That’s about my upgrade cycle time for the laptops — the hard drives get upgraded on shorter timescales.

  45. Whether PCs go away or not depends on how you define ‘PC’. I expect that the home of the near future will have a keyboard and mouse on the desk, some pads scattered around the house, etc., all Wi-Fi’ed together with a box under the desk or in a closet that acts as router/internet interface/local server…

    When you sit down at the desk you’ll connect to a virtual PC on the box. Everyone in the home will have their own ‘PC’. If you have a laptop for travel, you’ll have the normal network connection to it. Nothing futuristic about this whole thing. Many of this blog’s readers could assemble such a system today. (Do they have Wi-Fi enabled keyboard/mouse combinations out there yet? You might have to run cables to the box, or just put the box under the desk like we do now.)

    The reason I keep harping on the need for ‘the box’ is simply because you’ll need a certain amount of power to run the thing, and nobody has figured out how to miniaturize the watt yet.

  46. True, and if you wait long enough to upgrade, what you thought was just a, say, processor swap, is now processor + mobo + new cards that substitute the ones that don’t work anymore with the new Port2010PlusExtraExpress interface, because they used Port2009PlusExtra slots. Upgrading piecemeal is harder than it sounds.

    Indeed; in fact we’re coming up on yet another cycle of obsolescence: Large memory capacities + cosmic rays will make ECC RAM a requirement in desktops in the very near term.

  47. I think ESR is basically right, but he’s missing out on what I think is an important detail.

    As already discussed, there are some types of software for which a pocket-sized display does not yield a satisfactory experience. The biggest ones would probably be gaming, HD movie viewing/editing, and CAD. All of these applications have something in common: they make use of a graphics coprocessor for acceleration. They also put greater-than-average stress on the CPU itself.

    Since these applications will *only* be used when the “phone” is plugged into a monitor, it’s entirely logical to install the graphics coprocessor into the monitor itself. That way, the portable “phone” component is cheaper and lighter, and the GPU is cheaper as well (since it doesn’t have to be compact and it can have a nice big cooling fan.)

    Since GPUs and CPUs are converging, the “graphics coprocessor” of the future is likely to be general-purpose enough that a “monitor” is actually quite capable of being a standalone workstation (or at least, the very high-end ones will be.)

    To stay relevant with such hardware, the Open-Source UNIX graphics stack needs to be able to handle hotpluggable GPUs and monitors seamlessly. That’s why I’m hoping Wayland catches on; it should be more amenable to this than X11.

  48. As already discussed, there are some types of software for which a pocket-sized display does not yield a satisfactory experience. The biggest ones would probably be gaming

    Did you know that the most sold console is the Nintendo DS, by a very, very, very big margin?

  49. Not quite, although the DS is the best-selling in the current generation. However, this doesn’t obviate the fact that certain kinds of games require big systems.

  50. @Max E: Maybe. The biggest problem is bandwidth. An x8 link PCI-Express 2.0 is 32 Gbit/s and x16 is double that. By comparison, common external links like USB max out a 480 Mbit/s; even FireWire 1600 is only 1.5 Gbit/s.

    There is a specification for external PCI-Express 1.0, which maxes out at 32 Gbit/s, but A) I haven’t seen any implementations of the spec and B) AFAIK, no one knows what the max cable length would be. At this time, to my knowledge, there is no External PCI-Express 2.0 yet. Furthermore, there isn’t a PCI-Express for mobile, AFAIK.

    The most promising external interconnect for mobile video I think would be a low-power InfiniBand setup, but again, I haven’t heard of any implementations for GPU connection.

    Perhaps instead what we’ll see is the return of video toasters. *shrug*

  51. @Morgan Greywolf: Details, details. This doesn’t have to happen tomorrow. As far as I know, even bus speeds comparable to AGP would already accommodate a better GPU than could be built into the phone itself.

  52. I think that ESR is basically correct. Until we can converse with a computer as we would with another person, desktop computers in some form(s) will continue to fill an important role simply because they are the best known interface for certain roles. I think you all underestimate the massive amount of word processing and accounting functions that will only be met by networked desktops.

    What we WILL see is continuing diminution of the computing granularity. By this I mean an ever larger number of various computing devices designed for various functions and form always follows function in machine as well as in life. What I predict is a bewildering array of computational devices designed for an huge array of functions and needs.

    Jakub NarÄ™bski has also made an important point. The infinite configurability of today’s desktop allows system integrators and educated consumers (geeks) to select the best components for the desired function and price range. It is considerably cheaper to replace the out-of-date components in a desktop with new ones than the entire computer, although I agree with Morgan that this only applies to a certain market segment. However, this is a market segment who WILL have their needs met ! LOL

  53. @biobob:

    What we WILL see is continuing diminution of the computing granularity. By this I mean an ever larger number of various computing devices designed for various functions and form always follows function in machine as well as in life. What I predict is a bewildering array of computational devices designed for an huge array of functions and needs.

    Yes, this I definitely agree with. There are already computing devices in places where many people do not realize it; there are computers in your television, in your microwave, etc., and in 2003 LG even introduced an Internet Refrigerator that everyone thought was ridiculous.

    I don’t think the idea itself is problematic; it’s just that people aren’t going to pay $15,000 for a refrigerator that provides only marginal utility and value over conventional models.

    I think these will be evolve from mobile phone technology. Touchscreen interfaces, 3G/4G data connectivity. An example: GPS navigators are already moving in a direction towards being a ‘car tablet’. In fact, I predict that within the next 5 years (likely much sooner), we’ll see Google partnering with one of the GPS navigator vendors and a wireless provider or two to produce an Android powered device with Google Earth or Google Maps as the primary application, combined with maybe an Android app or two that’ll remind you when to change your oil, rotate your tires, etc.

  54. Morgan Greywolf said, of the Chordite,” That thing has more problems than it solves.”

    Alas, this is literally true. It exists only as prototypes and thus is crude, fragile, awkward, etc. That’s 3 problems right there. And it only solves 1 problem: portable data input efficient enough for heavy duty use all day.

  55. In fact, I predict that within the next 5 years (likely much sooner), we’ll see Google partnering with one of the GPS navigator vendors and a wireless provider or two to produce an Android powered device with Google Earth or Google Maps as the primary application…

    You mean like the Garminfone?

    The vendors of personal GPS devices know their bottom line is threatened by smartphones with GPS functionality. Garmin is prepared for this transition and is selling a user experience rather than a GPS device: the default nav app on the Garminfone is not Google Maps but Garmin’s own navigation UI (presumably replete with Shatner voice telling you distance to your next turn in meters).

  56. @esr – Form-factor is irrelevant – as a power user I need a fast processor, lots of memory, dual displays, a full size keyboard, mouse, a high speed network and USB connection. Do I care what this all plugs into – not really my experience stops with the display, keyboard and mouse.

    I think it would be cool if it all plugged into a fish tank, at least that would be more esthetically pleasing than a silver or black box.

    But in my case it all plugs into a 8.5x11x1 laptop which I can take with me if I need to – is it as good as my docked setup on the road – no – but there is something to be said for the fact that I can bring everything I have ever worked on for the last 25 years with me.

    The fish tank would not be portable.

  57. Form-factor is irrelevant – as a power user I need a fast processor, lots of memory, dual displays, a full size keyboard, mouse, a high speed network and USB connection.

    I keep saying that…

    but there is something to be said for the fact that I can bring everything I have ever worked on for the last 25 years with me.

    Both positive and negative; on the plus side, you have easy access to it; on the minus side, without encryption, so does everyone else within grab range.

  58. You mean like the Garminfone?

    Hmph. Not surprised it uses the Garmin UI, but Google Maps on Android does support giving voice turn-by-turn directions. I did find out that my wife’s Evo 4G has a built-in GPS receiver; it’s not just pseudo-GPS.

  59. … but there is something to be said for the fact that I can bring everything I have ever worked on for the last 25 years with me.

    I can see the appeal for people who were far-sighted or lucky enough to be hacking Unix-y systems back then, but given that most of what I wrote 25 years ago was in Modula-2 or FORTRAN or Z80 assembler, and given that solutions to most of the hardest problems that I solved back then can easily be expressed in a few lines of Python and still run 100 times faster now, that’s not something I care that much about.

  60. BobW: the problem isn’t really with the Chordite. It’s that, to work really well, it has to be sized to fit your hand. But hands are wildly variable in size. So, you could make one in several sizes which didn’t fit very well, or you could make it be customizable, but that makes it fragile. The real solution is to scan somebody’s hand, and use a 3D printer to make a keyboard for them.

  61. @Patrick Maupin = Hammer, Nail, Head rofl —- however, there are still some things ….. “you are in a narrow, twisty tunnel”

    On the other hand, today’s computational devices are the goto appliance for music, movies, literature, artwork, etc, etc, that have a lot more intrinsic value than Z-80 assembler device drivers lol.

  62. On the other hand, today’s computational devices are the goto appliance for music, movies, literature, artwork, etc, etc, that have a lot more intrinsic value than Z-80 assembler device drivers lol.

    You might be laughing now, but you just wait til I finish porting the Linux kernel to the Z-80! :-P

  63. > 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.

    I can’t see anyone trusting such a “universal peripheral” with anything. Much of what people do with computers, especially what they would prefer to do with their own device regardless of the KVM, is private. You just can’t trust a public machine that sees your screen and all your keystrokes enough to do anything valuable with it.

    Besides, this ain’t the way our economy works. Come up with a new class of electronic bullshit, and said new COEBS will be marketed to consumers, period.

  64. The real solution is to scan somebody’s hand, and use a 3D printer to make a keyboard for them.

    If I remember correctly John described that as one way to build the device.

    So, who has the skillset? I don’t.

  65. I can’t see anyone trusting such a “universal peripheral” with anything. Much of what people do with computers, especially what they would prefer to do with their own device regardless of the KVM, is private. You just can’t trust a public machine that sees your screen and all your keystrokes enough to do anything valuable with it.

    While this SHOULD be the case, the unfortunate truth is that the greater population will believe pretty much anything the machine tells them. With the exception of the cluehammer warnings (e.g. “WARNING: You are connecting to an unsecured wireless network. Everything you do on this network might as well be seen by every person wandering past including that google street view van”) which get ignored.

    It’s not like Nigerian Scammers, net banking scams and those “You have a virus! send us $100 now” scams keep going because they’ve got nothing else to do.

  66. People may trust public machines more than they should, but even without the security concerns they’ll still prefer to use their own keyboards, mice and displays. That’s one reason why I don’t buy ESR’s vision of mobile devices becoming the primary computing devices for most users, with the desktop turning into just a docking station. People will only want to plug their future-smartphones into their own peripherals, and not into random public docking stations. As a result, there won’t be that many public docking stations to plug into, and so the future-smartphone won’t be commonly used that way.

    In addition, most users have a “fat tail” of rarely-to-occasionally-used apps that they won’t want to give up. This will block the switch to a future-smartphone or other relatively limited device. Most users will have a dozen or so occasionally-used apps that they’ll still want to run on their main machine, and so will keep a desktop as their main machine as being the best machine to run those occasional apps.

  67. I see four size-niches for personal computing devices:

    1. Pocket-sized. Basically the smartphone, and ultimately combining all the useful functions that can be usefully put into a pocket-sized form factor.

    2. Digest-sized. The Kindle and kindle-like devices. Netbooks are also trying to push down into this size. The problem with this size is that it’s an awkward size for keyboards – you want something more than a thumbable, but a regular keyboard reduced to digest-size really doesn’t work for typing. The kindle solution is to make the device an e-reader, reducing the need for a keyboard. Another solution is the folding keyboard, but those have their own problems.

    3. Big-book-sized. Laptops. Also tablet computers and the iPad. This is the minimum size that a useable typing keyboard can be squeezed into. The problem is that it is a squeeze, and one solution is to abandon having a typing keyboard. I see the iPad as taking the Kindle route this way, becoming the e-reader equivalent of a glossy color magazine where the Kindle is the equivalent of a mass-market paperback.

    4. Desktop. This has advantages and disadvantages of not being mobile. Full-sized keyboard, big mouspad, big display that the user doesn’t have to hold, plenty of room for big hard drives and other components & peripherals, and no worries about battery life. But you can’t take it with you.

  68. @Deep Lurker:

    If you’re suggesting that as notebooks didn’t kill desktops and desktops didn’t kill Big Iron, mobile devices, Kindle-like devices and tablet machines won’t kill laptops and desktops, but rather we’ll see a variety of devices falling roughly into these categories, then I agree with you 100%.

    Someone might point out minicomputers, but minicomputers didn’t really die; they just morphed into what we call ‘servers’.

  69. @BobW:

    So, who has the skillset? I don’t.

    Is there a CAD model of the device somewhere? If so, what CAD software? If I had a prototype, I could probably build a solids-based CAD model of the device (I’m a 3D CAD expert, amongst my many other talents), but I’d need help from people who have and know how to use 3D printers so as to understand materials and the limitations of the 3D printer.

  70. If you’re suggesting that as notebooks didn’t kill desktops and desktops didn’t kill Big Iron, mobile devices, Kindle-like devices and tablet machines won’t kill laptops and desktops, but rather we’ll see a variety of devices falling roughly into these categories, then I agree with you 100%.

    While larger notebooks are not immediately threatened, the iPad is in the process of slaying the netbook category.

  71. People may trust public machines more than they should, but even without the security concerns they’ll still prefer to use their own keyboards, mice and displays.

    Public terminals will have minuscule, glossy displays and cheap $5 keyboards that feel like typing on a stiff dry sponge. I would avoid them like the plague.

  72. Jeff Read wrote:

    While larger notebooks are not immediately threatened, the iPad is in the process of slaying the netbook category.

    I’ve used an iPad. I use a netbook regularly.

    To me, an iPad is a television replacement. A netbook is a multi-purpose tool. As a web browsing device, I found the netbook to be superior, because of the ability to touchtype URLs. Plus I can edit and generate documents on it, and play a variety of video games that aren’t on the iPad.

    As a television-like device, and ebook reader, the iPad is a great tool…but it’s still a first generation device. It is better for those functions than a netbook is, but with the netbook I get adequate versions of those functions (or will in the next generation models out now, if I cared that much to upgrade), plus get a functional computer in the mix.

    There are lots of pundits saying the iPad is eating the netbook space, based off of projections on sales curves from limited data sets and data points. No doubt these pundits made similar projections about the price of Apple stock and its future value circal 1997 or so…

    Netbooks won’t have the explosive growth they had over the last three years; they’re now a mature product category. And their knock on effects have pretty much nuked sales of the MacBook Air and similar ‘premium for very light weight’ computers.

    iPad is a new product category with a dominant market leader. Unlike Eric, I think the iPad is an excellent consumer electronics device that serves a need that he doesn’t happen to have. (I really don’t have much personal use for one either; they make an excellent faux GPS device and eBook reader, and if I watched more video, I’d probably like it.)

  73. > If you’re suggesting that as notebooks didn’t kill desktops and desktops didn’t kill Big Iron,

    I don’t see those two as being the same. Desktops did drive Big Iron off into a specialize niche, but if notebooks did the same to desktops I missed that revolution. Most of the people I know use desktops as their main machine rather than either notebooks or notebooks-plus-docking-station.

    ESRs vision, if I understand it correctly is that only a small minority of users will need or want a full-up desktop in the future, that a future-smartphone will be Plenty Enough Machine for the majority, given human-scale peripherals to plug into it. I don’t buy that. I think that most users will continue to want a full-up desktop system rather than a docking-station desktop that supports the peripherals but is brain-dead without a smartphone plugged into it.

  74. I don’t see those two as being the same. Desktops did drive Big Iron off into a specialize niche, but if notebooks did the same to desktops I missed that revolution. Most of the people I know use desktops as their main machine rather than either notebooks or notebooks-plus-docking-station.

    Big Iron never went away for mission critical systems where “three 9s” just don’t cut it, because Big Iron does one thing very, very well: it stays running forever. I agree that they’re not exactly the same thing, but there are many similarities. Perhaps my analogy was imperfect, but I think you and I are saying the same thing: desktops haven’t gone away due to laptops, and smartphones won’t kill off laptops.

    And I think it’s for the same reason that laptops didn’t kill off desktops: using a laptop is a tradeoff. It’s a tradeoff between performance, reliability, flexibility and portability. I have a laptop and a desktop; I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

  75. “Public terminals will have minuscule, glossy displays and cheap $5 keyboards that feel like typing on a stiff dry sponge. I would avoid them like the plague.”

    They will also be icky. OPC (other people’s cooties.)

  76. > I know people who do warranty service on Apple equipment.

    So do I. Has it occurred to you that the people doing warranty service are going to be seeing a skewed sample? My Wall Street powerbook is still working fine, as are my Titanium G4 powerbook, and my pre-unibody MacBook Pro. None of them has ever been in service depot.

  77. I used to do warranty service on Macs in the mid-90s.

    When they work, Macs of that era were maintenance free. When they didn’t work…well, then you were most often trying to solve extension conflicts.

  78. @Some Guy:

    So do I. Has it occurred to you that the people doing warranty service are going to be seeing a skewed sample? My Wall Street powerbook is still working fine, as are my Titanium G4 powerbook, and my pre-unibody MacBook Pro. None of them has ever been in service depot.

    There are multiple kinds of skewed samples. Certainly the warranty people see one kind of skewed sample. But people who you show your ancient Macs to will see a different kind of skewed sample. Often, when an old car in great shape is spotted, someone will wistfully remark “They don’t make them like they used to.” To which, of course, the only correct reply is “No, they don’t. But then, they never really did, did they?”

  79. Often, when an old car in great shape is spotted, someone will wistfully remark “They don’t make them like they used to.” To which, of course, the only correct reply is “No, they don’t. But then, they never really did, did they?”

    Of course, pre-Chrysler-merger Benzes are known for their quality and for being far more likely to outlast cars made at the same time from most other manufacturers. Same goes for pre-x86 Macs.

  80. My fear is not that the PC will so much disappear but that it will morph into or be replaced by a closed device like a modern game console with an app store (or CD software controlled by one gatekeeper like Sony or Microsoft or Apple).

  81. GandhiCon4 is afoot. Why? The PC is a dying platform. Nobody wants to buy software in shirk wrapped boxes any more. Apple, Android, WordPress, Google, Ubuntu, and Fedora all have software on keyword demand. Heck, even Facebook delivers software better than Microsoft. With ARM-based tablets, netbooks, and phones, the PC is dead because Windows 7 will not support it. You and Rob Landley were right that the processor would change the fate of Microsoft… you miscalculated which 2 year time frame and which architecture. Microsoft will lose majority market share come June 30, 2011. Read more on my website: what will we use dot com

  82. > My fear is not that the PC will so much disappear but that it will morph into or be replaced by a closed device

    And it will only have computational power necessary to connect you to the cloud for a small monthly fee.

    Sad, but very possible.

  83. There are two reasons so-called ‘cloud’ computing is snake oil:

    1. Security. Who better to secure your valuable data – you or a corporate monolith (and what they are selling you as a true network ‘cloud’ is less a cloud and more akin to a file server that you happen to not know anything about – subject to their lapses in security and Force Majeure)?

    2. Performance. A thin client doesn’t lend itself to large vistas rendered in real-time ray traced goodness.

    This is also related to why I eschew game consoles. I want to get my hands dirty under the hood – squeeze every ounce of performance out of it (or have the option of doing so). If the market for that dies or becomes prohibitively expensive – we will all be playing small games on postage stamp size screens. Bah! Get off my lawn kids!

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