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Mac Planet: The end of the PC

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Microsoft is barely represented in the 'connected devices' market, which includes smartphones and tablets, plus eReaders like the Kindle and Nook. Photo / AP
Microsoft is barely represented in the 'connected devices' market, which includes smartphones and tablets, plus eReaders like the Kindle and Nook. Photo / AP

A couple of years ago, Steve Jobs, late CEO and top visionary of Apple Inc, signalled it was the end for the PC. What he said, at the launch of iPad 2 (which you can still buy, along with iPad 4 and mini) was "These are post-PC devices that need to be even easier to use than the PC, and even more intuitive." The press ran with it and declared it was the end of the PC era, or at least that Jobs was saying PC doom was nigh.

But Jobs was right. Last week two reports showed unprecedented declines in sales of desktop and laptop machines during the first three months of this year. First-quarter shipments of PCs fell 14 per cent worldwide compared to the same time last year, according to International Data Corp. That's the deepest quarterly drop since IDC started tracking the industry in 1994.

But the figure is slightly contentious - research firm Gartner Inc put the first-quarter decline at 'just' 11 per cent, thanks mainly to slightly different definitions of what constitutes 'PCs'.

There's still PC money to be made - over 300 million PCs are still expected to be sold worldwide by year's end. Tablet computers, an insignificant category until iPad came along, is catching up rapidly: Nearly 200 million could be sold this year. In tandem, worldwide smartphone sales could surpass 1 billion units by the end of 2013.

But where does that leave Microsoft? It has a Windows phone that, apparently, several people are using. Microsoft was the architect of the PC era, and definitely its chief beneficiary, even if you concede the PC era itself was really ushered in by Jobs and Wozniak as Apple. But these days Microsoft is barely represented in the "connected devices" market, which includes smartphones and tablets, plus eReaders like the Kindle and Nook.

In fact, just to compound the misery, it looks like the pivotal makeover of Microsoft's Windows operating system as v8 seems to have done more harm than good since the new OS was released in October last year. Windows 8 has a completely new look.

Logically, this should have worked, since it's similar to the look of software running on smartphones and tablets. Non-Apple computers are often cheap compared to Apple's, so you'd think this was a genius plan. But the OS overhaul looks daunting in that it requires a relearning process many consumers and corporate buyers have so far proved unready to take.

I'm sure that there are many who do use and love Windows 8, but there are many more who, so far, can't be persuaded. IDC Vice President Bob O'Donnell said "Unfortunately, it seems clear that the Windows 8 launch not only didn't provide a positive boost to the PC market, but appears to have slowed the market." While the new Windows is designed to work well with touch-sensitive screens, these displays add to the cost of the PCs. The OS changes combined with higher prices have made PCs a less attractive alternative to dedicated tablets and other competitive devices, instead of a more attractive one.

In effect, Microsoft combined the devil it knew (PCs) with the devil users didn't know (a completely redesigned Operating System), while putting the price up.

Hewlett-Packard, the largest PC maker in the world, has also felt the effects, registering a 24 per cent drop in shipments in the first quarter compared with the same year-ago period.

But Macs aren't selling more than PCs. The IDC report noted above mentions that while Apple has fared better than other vendors, Mac sales have also been showing shrinking shipments of desktop and laptops. This does rather depend who you ask - rival research group Gartner shows a 7 per cent growth for Mac. Either way, the point is Apple still has plenty of sales power thanks to 'non-PC' iPads and iPhones. What does Microsoft have?

If you're more inclined to believe Gartner than IDC (which I'm not, usually), Gartner claims Microsoft's reign is truly coming to an end: 2013 will be the first year that more Apple devices are purchased than Windows devices.


I'm sceptical. Also, I don't like to be too down on Microsoft. Truly, I don't. As I've said before, Microsoft employees and developers can be a joy to deal with compared to the habitual secrecy represented by Apple's real human interface - Apple's staff. Actually, it's not that Apple staff members are being secretive particularly - they just don't actually get told much themselves.

Microsoft networking is well developed and effective - and it's used by Apple devices in may shapes and forms. Microsoft helped 'save' Apple in 1997, both with money and by promising to continue to develop Office for Mac.

These days, a lot of Microsoft developer code works across platforms - for example, Windows Azure Mobile Services can be developed on all sorts of devices, including Apple's, thanks to Javascript. Microsoft is learning to operate in this not-nearly-so-monolithic new computing world, and good things can surely come of this.

Paradoxically, the whole seismic shift in computing practice might further strengthen the fortunes of IBM, which famously 'didn't get' the personal computer and muffed its chances at being a real player in that emerging market. You might have expected IBM to quietly founder off the strength of its powerful, expensive and seemingly redundant mainframe business, which was and still is its main-frame as it were. But no, IBM is still making International Big Money.

When you concede that many iPads, other tablets and mobile devices are increasingly being used as fast, convenient and portable terminals into servers, which can be hosted on computer arrays and mainframes, IBM's fortunes might just continue to rise.

Which does hold out some hope for the stumbling behemoth that Microsoft has become. Most of the software iPads access in secure networks like corporations and banks is Windows-based. So here's a plan, Microsoft: make it look and work better when accessed by iPads, since stepping down from 264dpi to the bodgy-looking and oh-so-old-school 72dpi of a Windows server looks bad. I'm sure Exchange can be made to support the iDevice touch interface better and work better all round.
And if so, the future remains bright for everyone.

- NZ Herald

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