Tuesday, June 22, 2010

(empo-tuulwey) (empo-tymshft) The power of a boat anchor - my view on the "desktops are dead" debate

Steven Hodson wrote a post which brought a whole debate to my attention - a debate about the decidedly un-sexy desktop computer, an unglamorous "boat anchor" compared to the other personal computing devices out there.

Hodson first referred to a Slate post called "Flight of the Desktops." The central thesis of this article is that desktop sales are not only declining - something that everyone acknowledges, and which is supported by predictions of US sales of computers through 2015 - but that the newer form factors (including iPad-like tablets), as well as the cloud, will pretty much wipe out any reason for having a desktop.

Hodson then referred to the counterpoint article, Mark 'Rizzn' Hopkins' "Hold Your Horses, Slate, Desktops Can't Fly!" Allow me to quote from Hopkins' first point:

First and foremost, they’re cheap. Up until the existence of the netbook a few years ago, there was no cheaper way to get access to, well, everything from your home without buying a desktop PC. We in the tech bubble often forget that price is a factor in most people’s technology purchase decision making.

And remember the statistics that Slate cited? They were US-centric statistics. And the factors that influence sales in the United States (and Hodson's Canada) do not influence other countries. Witness this May post from nyakpo.com:

There are many other countries around the globe where you can get it in the near future, but Africa…? No, forget it. Not even Apple’s Steve Jobs can tell you when its newest classic toy will be available for sale in Africa.

As an aside, it should be noted that even if Apple were to make the iPad available in Africa, it would be difficult to buy:

When Apple asked for pre-orders for iPad in April after its US launch, it was a request clearly understood outside Africa. And that is because it involved the use of credit cards on the Internet, a well-run postal system where deliveries are made to residential addresses, and an unquestionable ability to afford.

FIFA has been criticised recently because many soccer fans across Africa could not get to buy tickets for the matches in South Africa. The reason? Most of the tickets were being sold over the Internet.

So Apple’s pre-order request over Internet would have been meaningless in most places in Africa, because credit cards are very much a novelty, the Internet is painfully slow and residential addresses are practically non-existent. Many streets, where they exist, are nameless. The sight of a postal worker on a motorbike, or in a car, delivering letters and parcels to homes is mostly unknown.

But an even bigger concern is the price. As the article notes, "The iPad costs an absolute minimum of $499 US dollars. Fancy that for a continent whose inhabitants are so poor that one popular business module is to set up organisations to help it beg the rest of the world for aid."

Now Steven Hodson is not under the illusion that everyone can easily spend $500 on an iPad, or $2,000 on an iPhone. So he doesn't think that the desktop will die. But he does think that it will transform:

However a true distributed home server or home computer is still a little way off, but once we have true 1 gigabyte wireless, even if only internally, and we can remove the wires still connecting things like our monitors, then we will start to really see innovation within the home. At this point we will actually be able to have what Bill Gates termed as the disappearing desktop that will power our digital homes.

Again, however, you're going to see these improvements in Canada and the United States before you see them in, say, South Africa.

And Hodson, while noting that desktop computers are used in both homes and offices, doesn't really look at the office component. And offices are a different beast altogether. Now I'll grant that virtual computing may offer some technical and financial advantages to offices that might hasten the disappearance of the desktop from the corporate world, but I'll bet that there will still be a number of businesses - primarily small businesses - for which the desktop will not only be a viable platform, but a necessary platform. "Whether you like it or not," there are some companies that are scared to death of the idea of their employees lugging laptops all over the place, or plugging into the cloud from anywhere. To enhance both logical and physical security, these companies would prefer that some - or all - employees use a computer that doesn't move. This is perceived as something that is easier to manage. And perception is reality.

So I guess that if I were to choose sides, I'd side with Hopkins on this one. But in a sense, all three of them are right. Desktop sales are declining, and the "desktop" is going to morph into something new in SOME situations. But the desktop itself will survive.

Think about what a desktop is. It's a motherboard, enclosed in a case, with a monitor. Contrast this with the laptop/netbook/tablet/smartphone, which all consist of a motherboard, enclosed in a case, with a monitor. Or how about your cable or satellite TV and its accompanying set-top box? Yup, a motherboard, enclosed in a case, with a monitor.

It's relatively easy to build a desktop - in fact, the case for a desktop is easier to build than the cases for some other personal computers. So even if the market for desktop computers is relatively small, they're easy enough to build to ensure that they'll still be a viable form factor.

P.S. to those who know me - in one of the previous paragraphs, I initially misspelled "morph" - as "morpho." Luckily I caught this before I put this post on the print rack.
blog comments powered by Disqus