My Twitter friend Matt Baxter-Reynolds has just published a book called “The Death of the PC”, and his recent writing about the subject on ZDNet has brought a lot of finger pointing, especially in light of the recent strong financial announcements from Microsoft. Matt’s written today about the term being more of a metaphor than fact, but no doubt the heated fanboy debate that will rage on the pages of ZDNet will all get a bit literal about it again.
One of the things that I find striking about the time in which we are in is how computing devices now sit across the boundaries of what traditionally would have been technology, and what traditionally would have been media.
Two waves of computing technology ago, the mainframe, is still alive and kicking in many organisations. Although they may no longer take up rooms, having been virtualised into smaller and smaller footprints, the core (often financial processing) activities that “mainframes” were originally set up to do haven’t really changed much. It’s big business, though – I remember reading a year or so ago that apparently 1/3 of IBM’s revenues come from their mainframe technologies.
Minicomputers, however, died a death. Their function was completely replaced by the PC (and, one could argue, some of what mainframes did was too – either directly by the laptop or desktop, or by the move to WinTel-based servers that are to all intents and purposes PCs), and a swathe of manufacturers went with them.
Cinema is very much alive. It’s a very different medium to the one that was around when my dad was a kid in the post-war years. Then it would be news, opinions, entertainment all in one. These days documentaries are rare, B-movies go straight to DVD, cable or streaming services, and the newsreel is a long-distant memory.
Vinyl records, once thought lost, have survived through the CD era into the digital streaming era, first as the tool of choice of the club DJ, and more recently as hipster artefact. Even the humble compact cassette has made an arty comeback.
In the past five years or so much of what people used to do with PCs has moved to touchscreen devices – whether tablets or phones. Some of that is about consuming content, some of it creating. I’ve never believed the guff about smart devices being only content consumption devices – anything with a camera and microphone is well adapted to creating content as to which Instagram and Vine (and the 10 o’Clock News) pay testimony.
So where will the PC end up? Well, partly it will no doubt remain and evolve as a business tool – spreadsheets alone will keep PC manufacturers with a source of revenue for many years to come. What’s more interesting though is where it might end up in terms of a medium. Will it become retro-chic in the way of the LP? Will new forms of content evolve for it that play to it’s strengths in the way that the blockbuster or arthouse movie has for cinema? Time will tell…