Personal Computers: Dying or Just Starved for Change?

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The Washington Post blogger Hayley Tsukayama observes:

It's very fashionable to declare the death of things, if only because it can make you look very smart down the line.

But those claiming the personal computer going the way of the dinosaurs got to puff their chests out this week as two major tech deals added credence to the assertion that the age of the PC is waning. With Google adding hardware (and patents) with its acquisition of Motorola Mobility and Hewlett Packard Co.'s decision to explore spinning off its PC business, it's clear that tech companies are focusing their futures on tablets, smartphones and software.

The New York Times has also taken up this theme. But might not the logical order be reversed? Could the technological futurists' predictions of a "post-PC era" years ago have inspired not just the development of more powerful mobile devices (which is good) but also a slowdown of innovation in conventional desktop computing (which is not so good)?

I've been thinking of getting a new PC and have been disappointed by how slowly even high-end models have advanced since my last purchase of a high-end Dell Optiplex five years ago. It took only a bit more than four years for the industry to move from USB 1.0 (1996) to USB 2.0 (2000), a 40x increase in data rate. Their successor, USB 3.0, is available on some Dell Optiplex models, but only as an add-on card. Many laptops have USB 3.0 connectivity, but generally only as a single port. Apple, to its great credit, has implemented the even faster Intel Thunderbolt. I haven't found a consumer-market external hard drive at any price, but Apple is promising delivery of the $49 cable (the price of some 500 GB USB 2.0 drives) "within 2-3 weeks."

The great majority of personal computers have the same connectivity speed as their predecessors did 10 years ago. No wonder a study published last fall revealed that half of companies still running Windows XP planned to continue doing so even after Microsoft stops supporting the operating system in 2014.

PC makers, by generally focusing on price rather than value (as Apple has done) condemned themselves to a struggling commodity market. And their cost-cutting may have backfired. My Optiplex keyboard has needed repeated replacement under my extended service warranty. If only Dell's hardware were as good is its premium tech support!

The loss of a major competitor probably will hurt PC innovation even more. And it illustrates a risk of technical deathtalk: that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the 1950s Britain's postwar railroads were a grimy Victorian anachronism as Europe was beginning to move to high-speed electrified service. But, according to a BBC News site, Sir Winston Churchill's economic advisor, Lord Cherwell, declared trains obsolete and about to be replaced by "helicopters or other forms of transport."

There's a dilemma for consumers. Buying new PCs despite the disappointing rate of innovation rewards the industry's sluggishness. Holding off reinforces technological deathtalk.

Whatever buyers decide, investors seem to be having doubts of their own about the wisdom of HP's post-PC strategy. The company's shares were down 20 percent by Friday's close, losing $12 billion in market value, according to the Wall Street Journal.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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