Global shipments of traditional PCs dropped 29% in the first quarter of 2023, according to preliminary results from the International Data Corporation (IDC). As this was the largest quarterly decline since the first quarter of 2020, which was the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, articles and social media were buzzing with questions, namely “what does this mean for PCs” and “is the age of PCs over?”
While this may have predominantly been within the tech media and tech aficionado circles, these questions are nothing new.
Back in 2010, after having unveiled the first-gen iPad to the world, Steve Jobs is quoted as having said that iPads were going to replace PCs as consumption devices and that, while PCs were still going to be around, “only one out of x people will need them.”
In the 13 years since then, various tech companies have sold us the idea that the tablet would replace the PC — it hasn’t.
Before Covid-19, it was predicted that the PC market would decrease from 262.5-million in 2019 to 221.8-million in 2025.
As a result of the Covid-19 lockdowns, work-from-home (WFH) mandates and remote learning, people needed PCs on a scale they didn’t before. Naturally, this resulted in a production and sales boom for PC manufacturers.
Eventually the world started opening up and people returned to work and school with the so-called new normal returning to the old normal.
This had a direct impact on PC sales. Not only did people no longer need more laptops and desktops, the market was now saturated with PCs in a way it had never been before.
The weak demand, excess inventory, and worsening macroeconomic climate all coalesced into a perfect storm, which resulted in the findings announced by the IDC.
Having spoken about the report and why we shouldn’t be panicking ad nauseam, I asked a fellow journalist one question: “What is a PC?”
It may seem like a silly question, after all, pretty much everyone knows what a PC is.
But with the report of declining sales and the ever-present possibility of something replacing the PC — tablet, folding phone or something else — the question was begging to be asked.
Having spent as much time as I have in this industry, both as a journalist and as someone who’d helped bring new products to the world for one of the big five tech companies, I now consider it part of my job to look at what people are using, and more importantly, how they’re using it. And if you look at a PC from that perspective, the question becomes far more fascinating.
Traditionally, a PC may have been described as a device with a CPU, GPU, a display and some form of input. If we abide by that definition, then everything from my Apple Watch, to some cars, to a smart refrigerator qualifies as a PC.
When I posed the question to Glenn Du Toit, Acer Africa’s country manager, he responded by stating that technology exists for one purpose, namely to increase efficiency.
“If a mobile phone increases my efficiency and it gives me the right amount of comfort to be able to do my work, by de facto that becomes my personalised computing device,” says Du Toit.
Naturally this lead to the question of what the new PC is, and according to Glenn, the answer is that it depends on the application.
How we use our devices has not only shaped the form factor and capabilities of the devices we have now, it will continue to shape the next generations of devices. And how we use our devices is partially affected by new job functions, access to data, new platforms and finding new ways to create, connect and communicate.
We’ve seen this in the way language has changed and the way we use our phones for everything but the phone functionality.
Marce Bester, technical PR at Asus, shares the same ideology of the future of PCs.
Asus themselves are known for their unusual designs and for pushing conventional PC boundaries, something they’ve done with the new ROG Ally, which Bester describes as “a hand-held portable gaming console that runs a full Windows 11 operating system”.
It may not be the intended purpose of the device, but it is within its capabilities and if that device meets your unique needs, it could very well become your personalised computing device.
What this really is, is the individualisation of the personal computer based on your needs.
According to Du Toit, this is one of the big problems that PC manufacturers had in 2022. The industry had an oversupply of devices that weren’t individualised and were pushed out to a nation of people who had to expedite their digital adoption and potentially hamper their understanding of what they needed.
If PCs are more personalised and anything from a phone to a hand-held gaming device could be someone’s personal computing device, then how accurate is the IDC report, which looks at PCs in a traditional sense? After all, PCs are anything but traditional anymore.
“It’s inaccurate to the level that we can’t explain,” says Du Toit. According to him “anything that competes with the sale of a device is a PC. If the person is deciding to buy a tablet over the PC, then it’s the same.”
“The age-old way of defining PCs by specification is gone. We need to start defining it by use case and user requirement. Our Nitros and our Predators compete with the PS5. Our Chromebooks are competing with mobile devices, because of computing availability and all the processing power sitting in the cloud.”
This is the emergence of the cloud sync device, which exists in various forms including smart speakers, Chromebooks, phones, smartwatches and more, but also gives an indication of the direction we’re headed where ambient computing becomes a reality. This will eventually give rise to an almost Star Trek level of technology where you can speak out loud to a computer that will be available anywhere and everywhere you are and it will be able to perform the desired request.
Not only will this benefit existing PC manufacturers who are under constant pressure to make their devices thinner, more portable and more powerful — much like the Asus Zenbook S 13 OLED — it will also help foster in an age that blurs the lines between augmented and mixed reality and the real world.
That future is still a ways off, and for now, despite the sales hiccup, PCs as we know them aren’t going anywhere, at least not according to MediaTek.
“PCs will continue to have a future role to connect, in particular end users to these processors, enabling them to perform their daily work tasks, gain access to many sources of knowledge and for recreational purposes like downloading and listening to music, streaming movies, connecting with friends and family and general web browsing. Despite significantly losing market share to predominantly mobile devices such as smartphones and notebooks, the PC will gain sales traction again because of the use of AI chips to create AI powered PCs that feature machine learning (ML), speech and voice recognition, virtual assistant and etc.”
It may take a long time for PCs to be phased out because they are better at sorting, organising and searching through information more efficiently than any other device and they provide the comfort of simple things like being able to sit and type, a still preferred conventional method of working.
At the executive summit hosted last year, MediaTek reiterated its commitment to the PC market with MediaTek Kompanio chipsets and sees a $40bn billion opportunity for the PC market, says Rami Osman, director for corporate sales and marketing at MediaTek Middle East and Africa.
Asus SA’s Marce Bester thinks that the IDC report is just a reflection of the fact that technology is getting more robust, more powerful and that devices last longer and therefore people are holding onto them for longer periods of time. “People don’t need to be concerned. Consumers are focusing more on what they need and what they want,” said Bester.