Shut Down: Does the PC have a future?

Skyrim screenshot
Image caption Graphically detailed games such as Skyrim encourage consumers to splash out on a new PC

Once upon a time when you wanted to use a computer you sat down in front of a desktop PC, turned it on and got to work.

Then laptops appeared so you could do that work on the sofa, the train or the plane.

Then came mobile phones. And the world wide web. And smartphones. And tablets.

The poor PC is getting left behind.

"There was a time when the programs and applications you used only existed on PCs," said Ranjit Atwal, a research analyst at Gartner who watches the PC market. "But that's not the case anymore."

Sales figures suggest that the plethora of those other gadgets are making households reluctant to buy PCs at the moment.

Mr Atwal said Gartner is expecting a "notable" slowdown in the number of PCs consumers buy in late 2011 and 2012.

That seems odd given what technological advances and the recession are doing to the desktop PC.

"The PC has become commoditised so it can sell at lower prices," said Mr Atwal. "And that's been exaggerated by the economic downturn."

Even though the PC is cheap and is getting cheaper, that is not tempting people to pick up a new one.

"Instead," said Mr Atwal, "we're investing in other devices."

In these tight times, people appear unwilling to spend cash on something they already have. Evidence suggests they are using it to buy the gadgets they do not own - such as tablets and smartphones.

Hanging on

The bad news does not end there. More evidence that the PC is being left behind comes from data gathered by online computer memory store Crucial.

It produces software that customers can download and run on their computer to gather information about their system.

The retailer uses the tool to advise customers about what they should be buying to beef up their PC.

Image caption Many people are using their spare cash for a different type of computer

Crucial spokesman Roddy Maclean said the information also offers a snapshot of what is whirring away inside tens of thousands of PCs found up and down the country.

The statistics suggest that more and more people are holding on to their ageing PC rather than splashing out on a new one.

"About 50% of the systems upgraded in the last year are about four years old," he said. "That's up from up from 40% last year."

Many people, he said, seem to be buying a few key parts for their home PC to squeeze more out of it.

That makes sense, said Mr Maclean, because of the wide variety of tasks people perform with their PC.

"There's usually some kind of trigger point that makes people upgrade," he said.

"Often that's frustration that their system has started to slow down or the demands on their system are becoming greater."

"People use their PC as a tool for a much wider variety of applications than ever before," he said. "The desktop PC has become a real workhorse."

"All of that is driving an increased demand for more computing power and the number of things people are looking to do with their systems," said Mr Maclean.

Even those who build their own PCs and who might be expected to be in a permanent state of renewal are slowing down, said James Gorbold, editor of Custom PC.

"I think the upgrade cycle for upgrade enthusiasts has got slightly longer over the last 3-4 years," he said.

There's one simple reason for this.

"There are less and less games being developed exclusively for the PC," he said.

Many more games are now developed for both consoles and PCs.

Image caption PCs are only slowly ditching the look and feel of the first personal computers

"Given that consoles are less technologically sophisticated than PCs they will be programmed for the lowest common denominator which, from a commercial point of view, makes sense," he said. "However, it means they are not pushing modern PC hardware."

There's no reason to upgrade, said Mr Gorbold, if a better graphics card, more memory or more powerful chip in your self-built system has no effect on what you see on screen.

Hope ahead

Changes may be on the horizon, though.

"There are significant games that are due for release soon and they might be the killer app that drives the upgrade," he said.

The graphics heavy games in question are Battlefield 3 and Skyrim, and they could be the titles that prise open the wallets of those hardcore system builders.

Even Gartner is convinced that the PCs will once again find a place in the hearts of consumers.

Trends it has picked out suggest PC sales figures will pick up towards the end of 2012.

But, said Mr Atwal, most PC makers would have to work hard to get people to buy.

"The PC has not changed as consumers and users have changed their habits," he said.

"One thing the PC makers have not done over the last few years is make products that are innovative in terms of compelling features and novel form factors."

"There's the need for a fundamental re-think of how we make these gadgets compelling," he said.

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