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Microsoft founder Bill Gates famously said that he had a dream of there being computers in every home. Perhaps that time has already come and gone, and now the future is a computer in every pocket or purse. PC sales are in decline, even in months when students are buying laptops and desktops to go off to college. With tablet use on the rise and smartphones enabled with so many PC-like capabilities, could the Bill Gates dream finally be over? Let's look into the functional alternatives to standard computers and consider why you may not even need a desktop PC any longer.
It used to be that if you wanted to get on the Internet, then you needed a computer. Also, if you wanted to type something up and print it, then you needed a computer. To use email, listen to music online, or even watch streaming video, it used to be that you needed a computer. You still need a 'computer' to do these things, but you don't need a laptop or desktop. Instead, all you need is a phone or tablet device.
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Tablet devices are quickly becoming the new computer of choice for many people because they are easy to use. You turn them on, tap the screen to load an app, and you're off and running. You don't have to worry about memory upgrades to run certain programs, nor do you have to deal with malware nearly as much on a PC. Right now, there is definitely an 'it' factor going into tablet use, and Apple's iPad is certainly leading that charge, but this is more than just some trendy gadget - it's an outright PC replacement.
Purchasing the tablet device will cost you about as much as a mid-level laptop computer. The median price runs somewhere between $500-600 for the core hardware. You can also expect to spend another $20-50 more on a case or protective sleeve, and you can even get a wireless keyboard for $50-100. If you have a computer, you can connect your tablet device and use it to sync information, like how you can use iTunes to manage your iPad or other Apple devices. However, this is not a requirement. To get online, you can use WiFi or even pay for the same type of data service available for cell phones, then you can get online anywhere you can pick up a signal.
One question I often hear asked about tablet devices is what they can and cannot do compared to a computer. The answer is that there is very little a tablet can't do that a laptop or desktop can. The biggest difference would be with high-end applications like Adobe Dreamweaver or Photoshop, or the ability to use some of the more advanced features in Microsoft Office programs like Excel or Access. The question, though, is how many people need to have that type of functionality on a daily basis when most folks just use their computers to get online and check email or Facebook?
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Portability is Everything
The desktop PC has been in decline for many years, even before anyone had ever heard of an iPad. Do a Google search for 'laptop vs desktop sales' and you'll find articles going back to 2003 which state that laptops are outselling desktops. Computer World ran an article in 2005 which proclaimed the end of the desktop, and some are saying that they could be obsolete by 2015 as advancements in tablet computers continue to develop.
What is it about desktops that have users abandoning them in droves? The answer is simply portability. There is very little need for a computer that can't be relocated, and about the only advantages of a desktop for a home user are slightly cheaper hardware and better gaming options. If you want a bigger monitor than what came on your laptop, just buy a bigger monitor and hook it up. The same goes for a mouse and keyboard, or even an external DVD/Blu-ray burner.
Wireless Internet access by way of WiFi has been around for many years and has helped to push desktops out of homes. You don't even need a traditional computer desk any more, much less a desktop PC. With a laptop, all you need is your coffee table, breakfast nook, anything horizontal just became a workspace. There is a huge market in stands for tablet devices, too. What's the point of having wireless Internet access in your home if you only use it from a stationary desktop computer?
Right now, ebooks are outselling paperbacks and MP3's outsell CD's. Video rental stores are going belly-up because of online streaming video services like Netflix and iTunes. Technology is moving us toward making everything instantly accessible anywhere, and desktop computers are a hindrance to that progression.
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The Limited Appeal of Desktops
I doubt that desktop computers will completely go away because there are hobbyists who will keep them going. Sites like Newegg.com and Tomshardware.com deal in hardware components like video cards, motherboard upgrades, and so on. Anyone with a little technical know-how can build a desktop computer that runs faster and better than even the most top of the line unit from any major manufacturer, and this has been the case for nearly two decades.
Software will also keep the standard computer in place for a while, as companies are far too heavily reliant on complicated custom-built software made for Windows-based systems. People working with large amounts of data or editing audio and graphics need more powerful machines, plus there is the fact that some people just don't have the manual dexterity to operate a touchscreen device. Desktop and laptop computers will still have their place for certain functions, but the majority of casual computer users could do just as well with one of the many tablet alternatives on the market today.
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What the Future Holds
When a company as large as HP decides to sell off their PC line, it isn't a decision that came quickly. Perhaps they already see the future of computers and desktops and laptops just aren't part of the equation, and HP feels it's better to quit now while they are ahead. They eventually will sell their PC line because the brand name alone is worth a fortune, but what kind of future does that create for the desktop?
Wired.com is reporting that Samsung will be the most likely buyer of HP's PC line. This would make a lot of sense because Samsung already makes a lot of hardware components like hard drives, optical drives, and so on. They also make a line of laptop computers so this wouldn't be a totally new venture for them. The downside to such a deal would be that Samsung, or whoever buys out HP's PC business, will run things on a narrower margin. This means less money spent on R&D, which in turn means fewer new products and features for desktop and laptop PC's while tablet devices keep getting better.
- Computer World, Decline of the Desktop, http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/104856/Decline_of_the_Desktop
- Wired.com, Is Samsung Aiming to Snap Up HP's PC Business?, http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2011/08/samsung-to-snap-up-hp/
- PC Magazine, Should HP Sell Its PC Group, http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,2817,2391413,00.asp
- New York Times, As PCs Wane, Companies Look to Tablets, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/20/technology/as-pcs-wane-companies-look-to-tablets.html
- Apple iPad 2 image courtesy of Apple