Soon there will be no reason to have a big, boxy computer on your desk.

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June 18 2010 5:13 PM

Flight of the Desktops

Soon there will be no reason to have a big, boxy computer on your desk.

Video: Slate’s Farhad Manjoo test-drives programs designed to cure digital distraction in this episode of Killer Apps. Click the image to launch video player.

Consider the desktop. For decades, it was the king of computers. If you wanted a PC, you bought a big, boxy machine that sat on or under your desk. At first you did this because there was nothing else—the definition of a "personal computer"was a big, boxy machine that sat on or under your desk. The possibility that it could mean anything else was the stuff of sci-fi.

Around the early 1980s, tech companies began creating the first portable machines that resemble today's laptops. Still, for many years, desktops held sway in the market, because you always had to sacrifice something to go portable. Compared with laptops, desktops had more power, bigger and brighter screens, more comfortable keyboards and pointing devices, and much more storage space. Best of all, they were cheaper. You might have bought a laptop as a second computer, but it seemed quixotic to rely on it as your main machine.

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Not anymore. In the last decade, portable computers have erased many of the advantages that desktops once claimed while desktops have been unable to overcome their one glaring deficiency—by definition, these machines are chained to your desk.

Sales data bear out this trend: The desktop is dying. In 2008, desktops were tied with laptops in the market—about 45 percent of the PCs that American consumers purchased for personal use were desktops, about 45 percent were laptops, and the rest were netbooks and other mini computers, according to data from the market-research company Forrester. Last year, sales of laptops eclipsed sales of desktops for the first time. According to Forrester's projections, the decline in desktop PC sales will continue unabated over the next five years. Look at this graph:

Forecast: Share of US Consumer PC Sales By Form Factor, 2008 to 2015.

Amazingly, by 2015, desktops will constitute just 18 percent of the consumer PC market, if Forrester's projections bear out. In other words, more than 80 percent of PCs will be portable. Part of this is driven by what Forrester forecasts will be the wild success of tablet computers like the iPad. In just three years' time, tablets are projected to outsell desktops, becoming the second-largest PC category after laptops. This sounds crazy until you consider that Apple alone is already selling 1 million tablets a month.

Forrester's projections reflect the shifting definition of the personal computer. In spite of their name, desktop PCs often have several users. Laptops, netbooks, and tablets are usually single-user machines—that is, they really are personal. Modern mobile operating systems are built with room enough for one—Apple's iOS and Google's Android are both tied in to a single user's e-mail, calendar, and app-purchasing accounts. Forrester's numbers also suggest that in the future we'll have many such machines around the house. Your "main" computer will be a laptop—and you'll probably have several smaller, tablet-type machines that you use regularly as well.

Sarah Rotman Epps, a Forrester analyst who examines PC sales trends, discussed the projections this week at the Untethered Conference, hosted by Slate's sister publication The Big Money. (Full disclosure: I moderated a separate Untethered panel on the future of e-book readers.) There are some caveats to the report: First, the data represent the "consumer" market; sales to businesses reflect similar overall trends, but not to the same degree. Second, it's important to remember that these are projections based on current sales data, and they're not predictions. The report doesn't account for the inherently unpredictable, like some new technology coming along and upending the entire industry. It's impossible to say with any great precision what the PC industry will look like in 2015. Yet whatever the actual numbers, it's hard to think of a scenario in which desktops become substantially more attractive than they are now.

Indeed, it seems just as likely that desktop sales will drop faster than Forrester projects. In her report, Epps points out that desktops still offer more processing power per dollar than laptops—in other words, for the same amount of money, you can get a faster desktop than a laptop. As a result, Epps says, people with "processor-heavy" needs—people who want to edit high-definition video or play a lot of PC games—will keep the desktop market alive over the next few years.

But I suspect Epps might be overstating the attractiveness of very powerful machines. The rise of netbooks and tablets proves that, for many tasks, consumers are OK with sacrificing power in favor of portability. What's more, in the future much of the "power" in our computers will come from the Internet. You probably won't even need to store or edit your music, movies, and other files locally for long—we're getting better wireless network drives and Internet-based storage systems, and soon all your media will reside in a central location (in your house or some far-off server farm) accessible to all your machines. You might even be playing graphically-rich games over the Internet soon, too.

You might be skeptical that cloud-based systems will ever be able to match what a big, powerful computer on your desk can do. Perhaps they won't. But that might not matter. The annals of tech are littered with "better" things that we abandoned in favor of more convenient things. We dropped vinyl in favor of CDs, and then dropped CDs in favor of MP3s, even though each new technology offered lower audio fidelity than the previous one. In this way, the shift to portable machines fits larger social trends. More and more people want to work from home, and more and more businesses are allowing them to do so. Laptops, netbooks, and tablets fit into that lifestyle. Desktops don't.

There are hurdles in the way of the many-small-machines future sketched out in Forrester's numbers. At the moment, our computing lives are too scattered. There is little continuity as you shift from a laptop to a tablet to a smartphone to a desktop; each device has different apps, access to different sets of data, and a different screen configuration. Joshua Topolsky, Engadget's editor, recently called for tech companies to create what he calls the "continuous client," a system that will enable you to leave one device and "pick up your session in exactly the same place on the next device you use," Topolsky wrote. "Your IM, Twitter, web browsing, applications, even your windows (given the availability of such a thing on the corresponding platform) appear just as they did on the previous device."

You can bet someone will figure this out soon. And when that happens, you'll no longer think of any single computer as your "main" computer. They'll all be variations on the theme of your personal data. And none of them will be stuck to your desk.

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Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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