published Sunday, December 30th, 2012

Going, going ... 5 signs the personal computer may be on the way out

An attendee looks at the MacBook Pro on display at the Apple Developers Conference in San Francisco. New iPhones were among the highlights at Apple Inc.'s conference for software developers.
An attendee looks at the MacBook Pro on display at the Apple Developers Conference in San Francisco. New iPhones were among the highlights at Apple Inc.'s conference for software developers.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Keyboards? Mice? Disc drives? It may be time to pull the plugs, experts say.

After decades of monopolizing the home computing experience, the desktop PC could be on the way out. Technology experts say the rise of "second screen" devices such as smartphones and tablets represents a fundamental shift toward a "post-PC" or "PC plus" era.

In an entry to his blog Tech Broiler, ZDNet Senior Technology Editor Jason Perlow predicted that, within a decade, less than 10 percent of the current PC-using population will still require a desktop computer.

For the foreseeable future, experts say, some functions will continue to require a traditional computer, but for basic tasks, users increasingly are picking up other devices.

A purely post-PC world has not arrived, but here are five signs it is on the way.

1 THE CLOUD

Many experts say one of the most definitive signs of post-PC's arrival is the increase in the number of cloud computing services.

Using a website or a program installed on a computer, a cloud offloads the labor of running an application from the user's computer to a server to which they connect, usually via the Internet. The benefits of cloud services include reduced demand on the user's own computer hardware, automatically updated content and the ability to access files across multiple devices -- PC, smartphone, tablet -- anywhere there is an online connection.

Via a cloud, users can manage event calendars between devices, continue streaming a film on a smart TV that they started on their tablet or upload and share pictures between a smart phone and a PC.

Popular clouds include multimedia streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, Spotify and OnLive, online file hosts such as Google Drive and Dropbox and web-based email providers such as Gmail and Hotmail. Google and Microsoft each have launched cloud-based productivity software suites built on subscription models: Microsoft 365 and Google Apps, respectively.

When he returned from sick leave to introduce Apple's iCloud service at the 2011 Worldwide Developers Conference, late CEO Steve Jobs suggested cloud computing was the next leap forward.

"We think this solution is our next big insight, which is that we're going to demote the PC or Mac to being just another device," Jobs said. "[We] will move the hub, the center of your digital life, into the cloud."

Some companies are building hardware entirely around a cloud-based experience. In 2011, Acer and Samsung began manufacturing Chromebooks, notebook computers based on Google's cloud-based operating system: Chrome. Because they access applications online rather than off a hard drive, Chromebooks feature small hard drives, slower processors and require an Internet connection for full functionality but also are correspondingly cheaper than traditional laptops.

2 PC SALES SLUMP This year has been especially tough for PC manufacturers. In an Oct. 10 story citing market researchers International Data Corp. and Gartner Inc., The Associated Press reports that third-quarter global PC sales fell by about 8.5 percent.

For the same period, Dell reported a 47 percent slump, and Hewlett-Packard's $8.9 billion loss was the worst in the company's 73-year history. In its October report, International Data Corp. also predicts PC shipments in 2012 likely will represent the first annual decline since 2001.

Most industry analysts blame the sluggish sales, in part, on the rising popularity of tablets and smartphones. During the third quarter, worldwide tablet and smart phone sales rose by 43 and 47 percent, respectively, from 2011, according to estimates by research firms Strategy Analytics and Gartner.

That growth is expected to accelerate. In a February forecast of the mobile market, Transparency Market Research predicted that, by 2015, annual smartphone sales would more than double 2011 numbers to reach 1 billion units. The same report suggests tablet sales in 2015 would more than triple to reach 282 million units.

In an Aug. 24 story on Wired.com, author Marcus Wohlsen says the steady decline of PC sales since 2007 is not a slump, which indicates a potential for bouncing back, but a sign of traditional PCs' obsolescence.

"The PC market may not have that well of potential waiting to be reborn," Wohlsen writes. "Does anyone expect some near-future radical innovation to come along and rescue the traditional PC from increasing irrelevance?"

3 CONVERGENCE

With the approach of the post-PC era, the line between a desktop PC and other devices is becoming increasingly blurry.

Traditionally, the computing experience was tied to a single location in the home -- wherever the computer was. In the post-PC era, however, a similar experience can be had on multiple devices, from an Internet-connected TV in the family room to a smartphone in a pocket.

"'Post-PC' means that you don't have to sit in one spot," says Dan Thompson, manager of product development at Claris Networks, an information technology support provider with offices in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville.

"Now, the PC lives many places," he continues. "It doesn't stay in one place anymore."

Hardware and software designers are seeking ways to welcome the PC into the living room.

Earlier this year, Dell subsidiary Alienware introduced the X51, a small-case gaming PC with a video game console-like shape designed to help it fit seamlessly into entertainment centers. Similarly, the "Big Picture" function added earlier this month to the cloud-based service Steam lets PC gamers access their content via a console-like interface navigated by a game controller instead of a mouse and keyboard.

TVs similarly are borrowing from the PCs. Internet-connected smart TVs and set-top boxes such as Roku, Apple TV and Boxee Box provide access to services also offered on computers, such as social networking, web browsing and multimedia streaming services.

According to a Sept. 26 survey by market researcher The NPD Group, about 10 percent of American homes have Internet-connected TVs. The same report says that, for the first time ever, the TV has overtaken the PC as the most popular device for watching online video content at home.

Post-PC convergence also includes interaction between companion devices. The Apple TV allows users to stream the display of an iPhone or iPad onto an HDTV, a feature Google reportedly is seeking to replicate in its devices. Microsoft is pursuing a similar function with SmartGlass, which allows a smartphone or tablet to interact with the Xbox 360 game console by navigating menus and accessing supplementary information about movies, TV shows and games.

4 NO MORE DISCS

After decades of delivering content to computer users via floppy discs, CDs, DVDs and other physical media, many companies now are starting to rely exclusively on digital channels. As a result, manufacturers are beginning to remove physical drives from their latest computers.

Apple drew fire from critics around the world in 2008 when its new MacBook Air ultra-slim notebook debuted without a built-in DVD or CD drive. Since then, the company has continued the trend by also removing disc drives from the latest editions of the iMac and MacBook.

Similar to the removal of the then-outmoded floppy drive from the original iMac in 1998, Apple saw the writing on the wall, and other companies since have followed suit.

Many of Intel's Ultrabook-branded laptops, similar to the MacBook Air and Google's Chromebook, are too slim to accommodate a disc drive. According to August reports in the Japanese-language newspaper Asahi Shumbun, Sony plans in March to shutter Optiarc Inc., its division for making PC optical drives.

In October, Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller explained the decision to move away from physical discs in an interview with Time Magazine, saying: "These old technologies are holding us back. They're anchors on where we want to go. ... We try to find better solutions."

5 JUST A TOUCH

For decades, the only means of navigating a computer was a keyboard and a pointer device such as a mouse or touchpad. With the shift to a post-PC era, however, users now have 10 more options at their disposal: their fingers.

With the release of OS X Lion, the eighth version of its operating system, Apple borrowed many design elements from the iOS system used in its mobile devices, including new multitouch gestures, the Mac App Store and an iPad-like desktop and file organization system.

On Oct. 26, however, Microsoft took touch integration on PCs to a new level with the release of Windows 8.

The newest version of the world's most popular operating system is a dramatic departure from previous versions, due in large part to being designed from the ground up for simultaneous use on traditional desktops and touchscreen tablets, such as Microsoft's new line of Surface devices.

Although Windows 8 still can be navigated using a mouse and keyboard, the announcement of a shift to a touch-based interface led hardware manufacturers to install touch screens in many of the recently released Windows 8-equipped desktop PCs and notebooks. Some of the latter feature removable or reversible screens that essentially turn them into hybrid tablet-a-likes.

In a Nov. 1 article on CNET, Mike Feibus, a principal analyst of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based TechKnowledge Strategies, says Microsoft's melding of tablet-like interfaces with traditional PCs is a game changer for post-PC computing.

"Touch is as big an addition as the mouse was more than 20 years ago," Feibus says. "For many tasks, it's a better way to interact with the PC. Everything is different from here on out."

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, young adults, technology and people of interest. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German. He previously worked as the features editor for Sidelines at Middle Tennessee State University. Casey received the East Tennessee Society of Professional Journalists Award of Excellence for Reviewing/Criticism in ...

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