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The PC: Not dying, but adapting to a new role

If you have seen Spamalot, you may also remember the catchy song entitled "He Is Not Dead Yet" performed at the opening of the show. Well, that little ditty comes to mind every time I sit down at my laptop.

Many people still associate the term "PC" with the notebook or desktop computing form factor but over the years, I have asserted that both tablets and smartphones are in fact personal computers too. The reality is that consumers are using a multitude of devices to accomplish what we have always considered as computing.

In my opinion, tablets, and even to some degree smartphones, do not replace computers with larger screens like desktops or notebooks. Rather, these other devices simply take time and even some tasks away from the classic PC.

I still believe consumers will own computing devices with larger screens, more processing power, and more storage. However, the computing industry is facing the reality that the classic PC is no longer the only device in consumers' lives.

When the notebook category was growing quickly, two things were driving it: The fact that prices were coming down as the sector was maturing, and the fact that notebooks were the only mobile personal computers in consumers' lives. All of this has been turned on its head with tablets and smartphones.

So I emphasise, although the classic PC is not going away, its role is changing.

For many years, the classic PC was what we liked to call the "hub of the digital lifestyle." It was the primary screen used for computing tasks in consumers' lives. Other devices like iPods, for example, depended on the notebook or desktop. Even when the iPad first came out, this philosophy was employed. This will soon no longer be the case for the masses, though. As more consumers fragment their computing tasks to be carried out on a number of screens, each screen will find a role as a part of a holistic computing solution.

Although no single screen becomes the centre of a consumer's computing lifestyle, another solution takes centre stage: The cloud. Personal clouds will be the glue that holds all our devices together. This is evident with Apple's latest OS release, OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion. It's the first desktop OS to embrace the multi-device paradigm described. At any given time, whichever screen is the most convenient for a consumer to check Facebook or watch a movie, for instance, is the screen that will be used. The key word here is convenience. Our research shows that people grab the screen that is closest to them to get the digital stuff they need.

If I am in line at Alton Towers and I want to check my email, then my smartphone becomes the right screen for the job. If I am on the couch and my iPad is sitting on the coffee table, then it becomes the right screen for the job. If I am sitting at my desk in front of my desktop, then it becomes the right screen for the job.

The beautiful thing about OS X Mountain Lion is that it enables and even encourages this computing philosophy as part of the iCloud experience. This OS lets the consumer choose the right screen for the job, and makes sure he or she has access to all programs, documents, and media at anytime, anywhere.

This is the true role of the cloud – to become the centre of our personal computing infrastructure.

The PC used to be the machine that other screens depended on, but the cloud has now assumed that role. This reality, not just tablets, is what’s disrupting the landscape.

The market is embracing this concept of screens, whether manufacturers realise it or not, and will soon be conditioned to rely on the cloud rather than any one screen. It is for this reason that in Apple's case, the iCloud is a vital platform of equal importance to iOS and OS X. Other platform and hardware providers need to confront this reality and find their place in it.

This is why the PC still plays a role. It isn’t ready for the dead collector’s cart yet, and probably never will be because its role is evolving. Perhaps more importantly for hardware companies, its life cycle has changed.

Some PC manufacturers will be confronted with several very challenging pricing economics in the very near future. In fact, I think that the mid-level pricing of laptops in particular will disappear entirely. We will be left with only the low-end and high-end of laptops, and the low-end laptops will drive any real market growth in portables.

Given the changing role of PCs and the accessibility of content via the cloud, any vendor that fails to embrace the cloud, and has a weak hardware strategy, is headed for some rough waters.