In 1977, Apple, Commodore, and Radio Shack (yes, Radio Shack) launched the first mass-market personal computers. Last year, there were approximately 300 Million PCs sold. There are close to 2 billion personal computers in use around the world.
These are mind-blowing numbers, but they don’t tell the whole story. In 2013, global PC sales declined 14%, and by some accounts, are falling even faster in 2014. Meanwhile, there were 1 Billion smartphones and 250 Million tablets sold in 2013 alone! (CCS Insight, IDC numbers)
So, are we approaching the end of the personal computer era? Are personal computers just morphing into tablets and smartphones? Is it just a matter of semantics? Before we answer these questions, we need to understand what’s the personal computer era really is.
Before the personal computer, big and expensive computers were shared among many people. ”Centralized” computing power, however, was very inconvenient. You had to schedule time scheduled to run your program, using appropriately named “dumb terminals.” There was always a bunch of crabby computer scientists in line behind you.
With the birth of the personal computer, individuals had access to their own computing power. “Decentralized” computing changed everything. Over the next two decades, the personal computer became more and more powerful. By the new millennium, most people were using only a tiny fraction of the computing power of their personal computers. Life was good.
But then technology took an unexpected turn. With the advent of the internet, people started to use their browsers to connect to bigger, powerful servers (note these internet servers and their data may be anywhere, and may themselves share work, but that’s a different story). Meanwhile the personal computer, which was already way too powerful for most users, was ironically relegated to surfing the web, a feat so processor-numbingly simple that a handheld device could do it. Computing power had once again started a slow but relentless march back towards centralization.
Over the past 10 years, the internet browser has greatly matured. You can now see and do just about anything in your browser. Today’s browsers have allowed the last bastion of personal computing, complex software programs, to migrate to the big powerful computers that make up the internet. The so-called “cloud” is now ubiquitous, and almost every software vendor has an online version of its software.
As you can see, personal computing power has come full circle. From centralization to decentralization then back to centralization. This time for good. Devices have followed a similar path. We went from the “dumb terminal” to the powerful PC, and now with centralization firmly back in place, we’ve moved on to relatively “dumb” tablets or handheld device.
So what is the future of computing? For consumers, the near future looks like sleeker and faster handhelds or wearable devices that continue to use the power of centralization for their processing and data storage.
But what about business users? While centralization has definitely taken hold in the business world, the average desk worker is still using a personal computer. The near future may bring a new kind of “dumb terminal,” one that’s smart by comparison to it’s ancestors, but much cheaper and less powerful than today’s personal computers. Both Google’s Chromebook and Microsoft’s Surface are attempts to fulfill this future.
The personal computer era, defined as one of decentralization of personal computing power, is over. But the re-centralized computing era is just beginning.