The Real Reason No One's Buying PCs Anymore: They've Gotten Too Good

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
April 12 2013 1:29 PM

The Real Reason No One's Buying PCs Anymore: They've Gotten Too Good

Dude, you're not getting a Dell.
Dude, you're not getting a Dell.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

PC sales suffered their steepest decline in history last quarter, plummeting 14 percent worldwide, according to a report from market research firm IDC. As the Statista chart below shows, the malaise hit every major manufacturer except Lenovo, whose sales were flat. HP and Acer had the steepest drops.

Why is this happening? There are two prevailing theories. One is that it’s Microsoft’s fault. Historically, when Redmond releases a new version of Windows, PC sales spike as people upgrade their machines to take advantage of the fresh software. But with Windows 8, that hasn’t happened. That may because the radical redesign is confusing. A year ago, my colleague Farhad Manjoo predicted, “You’ll hate Windows 8.” Some analysts speculate that people may even hate it so much that they’re resisting buying a new machine just to avoid it. There may be some truth to that. We'll know more once Apple releases its quarterly earnings on April 23.

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The second theory for PCs’ sales decline is that, in short, the PC is dead. The media say this at least a couple times a year, and the latest wave of pronouncments includes obituaries from Salon and ReadWriteWeb. The idea is that, with people doing so much computing on their smartphones and tablets these days, they have no need for their old workhorse desktop or laptop anymore.

It's certainly true that people are increasingly spending money on new tablets and smartphones rather than new computers. But reports of the PC's demise are grossly exaggerated. If the PC is dead, what am I typing this on? If the PC is dead, what are office-workers all over the world sitting in front of all day while they work? The reason people aren’t buying new PCs isn’t that they don’t need a PC. It’s that, for the most part, they’re getting along just fine with the one they already have.

In the past, you had to replace your computer every few years or else it would become hopelessly bogged down trying to deal with the latest desktop applications, operating systems, and Internet technologies. But thanks to Moore’s Law, your average PC’s processing power now exceeds most people’s daily needs by a healthy margin. Meanwhile, the rise of the cloud has reduced the need for extra memory. And as ZDNet’s Simon Bisson explains in depth, a strategic shift by Microsoft in recent years has meant that you no longer need to buy a new machine in order to take advantage of each new operating system. The result is that PCs have become more durable than smartphones and tablets, which are still puny enough in their powers that you have to upgrade them regularly.

PC makers probably didn’t mean for that to happen, but there you have it. They're a victim of unplanned non-obsolescence.

Statista chart

Image courtesy of Statista

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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