Desktop PCs aren’t going anywhere, despite the growth of phones and tablets—because they’re cheap

I’m tired of articles like “As PCs Wane, Companies Look to Tablets” You know why PCs aren’t going anywhere? Because they’re cheap. You can buy them reasonably close to cost. If you want the least expensive means of computing possible, you can’t beat PCs now and won’t be able to for years, at the very earliest. Sure, “making them has not been a great business for most American companies for almost a decade,” but that’s because consumers are deriving so much surplus from PCs. They’re not close to commodities. Which is great for buyers, if not sellers.

The industry, the reporters who cover the industry, bloggers, and other people with a stake in the action want you to believe “TABLETS TABLETS TABLETS ARE COOL!!!!” because they want you to buy relatively high-margin tablets. Those tablets are high-margin because they combine commodity hardware with OS lock-in. The industry wants to move closer to Apple’s model, since Apple gets away with what it does because a) it has great design and b) for a long time, and maybe up to the present, OS X was more fun and in some respects better designed than Windows. Lock-in and high margins? What’s not to love from a business perspective?

It’s also not very much fun for journalists and bloggers who drive these stories about PCs to write stories that say, “Area man continues to derive immense intellectual, social, and efficiency value from the PC he bought five years ago and which continues to meet his needs adequately.” I wouldn’t read that story or post either. The larger tech press needs to find something to hype. In this case, of course, tablets and cell phones are genuinely big deals and their impact will continue to reverberate—but just because one sector is waxing doesn’t mean another is automatically waning. Especially when that sector offers a lot of value for the money.

So: every time you see a call for tablet computing, regardless of its source, you should remember that somewhere behind it, there’s a manufacturer who wants to sell you more stuff at higher prices. Paul Graham calls such beasts “the Submarine,” and if you want to understand how you’re being marketed to, you should read that essay. The PC manufacturer can’t really sell you more stuff in PC laptops and desktops these days because they’re too inexpensive and interchangeable. Apple can sell you design and an unusual operating system. Maybe Lenovo can charge above-average prices because of the Thninkpad’s reputation for durability, but that’s it. Everyone else is scrambling because consumers dominate producers when it comes to PCs. So we get stories like the one above; and, if, as Tyler Cowen speculates in this example, the U.S. economic model moves closer to Japan and capital depreciates, expect to see even more calls for tablets and so forth. Anything to avoid acknowledging that an existing stock of capital is Good Enough.

And you can expect to see misleading headlines like the one above. It’s frustrating to read stuff like this:

Computer makers are expected to ship only about 4 percent more PCs this year than last year, according to IDC, a research firm. Tablets, in contrast, are flying off store shelves. Global sales are expected to more than double this year to 24.1 million, according to Forrester Research.

How does an increase in the absolute number and the percentage of PCs sold an indicating of waning? I think that means computer makers will ship over a hundred million units, compared to a quarter as many tablets. I checked out Dell’s website, and one can buy a very nice Inspiron desktop with a dual-core AMD processor, 3 GB of RAM, and a 1 TB hard drive for about $400. Get a cheapie 20″ monitor, and you’ve got a very competent machine that’ll run Windows passable well for under $600. Get a sweet 24″ IPS monitor as good or better than the one in my 2007 24″ iMac for another $500, and you’re still under $1,000. That’s why desktops aren’t going anywhere and all this blah blah blah about tablets is important but also overrated by tech sites chasing the new shiny but who also think that everyone has, if not an unlimited budget, then at least a very substantial one for technical toys. Given my work, it’s probably not surprising that I have a higher-than-average budget for technical toys and tools, since I use my computer every day and often for very long stretches, but for people who aren’t writers, hackers, day traders, pornographers, and the like, having an expensive computer and a tablet and a phone is, if not overkill, then at least overpriced.

Some people get this—here’s a Time story that’s as an example—but too many don’t, especially in the press, which follows the tech industry like a marketing arm instead of an independent evaluator.

One more point: PCs are still better for some tasks. Maybe not for browsing Facebook and YouTube, but anything that requires a keyboard isn’t just better on a computer—it’s way better. Maybe students are going to write papers on iPads or iPad-like devices, but I’m skeptical, and even if one has a couple of substantial text-writing efforts a year, it’s going to be tempting to keep a keyboard around. I could be crazy; people are apparently writing novels on cell phones in Japan and now other countries, but producing a novel on a phone doesn’t sound appetizing from the perspective of either the writer, who can’t really get in the zone over the course of a hundred words, or the reader, who has to endure writing from someone who doesn’t appear to, say, go back and edit their novel as a coherent whole. Most people don’t seem to much like 19th Century novels that were published serially, and I think “lack of editing” and “lack of brevity” might be two reasons, and the first will probably come back to haunt cell phone novelists.

Then again, looking at the bestseller lists, maybe there isn’t much to go but down.

PCs and other form factors are going to coexist. Again, it’s not as sexy a story, but it’s also a more true one. In one Hacker News comment thread “jeffreymcmanus” observed, “People don’t stop buying the old stuff just because there’s new stuff. See also: horses, bicycles, cars.” Well, people have mostly stopped buying horses, because cars offer superior functionality in virtually all circumstances, but the point remains. Another commenter, “mcantelon,” said:

Yeah, which is why the “post-PC” terminology has a propaganda tone. It’s not going to be “post-PC”: more like “pop computing” or “computing lite”.

He’s right. Which is okay: I have nothing against tablets, cell phones, and so forth. Use whatever works. Just don’t pretend PCs are going away or automatically declining.


See also this post on whether you should buy a laptop or desktop and this related post on the reliability of each form factor.

Desktop PCs aren’t going anywhere, despite the growth of phones and tablets, because they’re cheap

Articles like “As PCs Wane, Companies Look to Tablets” are both true and bogus. PCs aren’t going anywhere because they’re cheap. You can buy them reasonably close to cost. If you want the least expensive means of computing possible, you can’t beat PCs now and won’t be able to for years, at the very earliest. Sure, “making them has not been a great business for most American companies for almost a decade,” but that’s because consumers are deriving so much surplus from PCs. PCs are close to commodities, which is great for buyers, if not sellers.

The industry, the reporters who cover the industry, bloggers, and other people with a stake in the action want you to believe “TABLETS TABLETS TABLETS ARE COOL!!!!” because they want you to buy relatively high-margin tablets (and they need something write about). Current tablets are high-margin because they combine commodity hardware with OS lock-in. The industry wants to move closer to Apple’s model, since Apple gets away with what it does because a) it has great design and b) for a long time, and maybe up to the present, OS X was more fun and in some respects better designed than Windows. Lock-in and high margins? What’s not to love from a business perspective?

It’s not very much fun for journalists and bloggers who drive these stories about PCs to write, “Area man continues to derive immense intellectual, social, and efficiency value from the PC he bought five years ago and which continues to meet his needs adequately.” I wouldn’t read that story or post either. The tech press needs to find hype and trends. Tablets and cell phones are of course genuinely big deals and their impact will continue to reverberate—but just because one sector is waxing doesn’t mean another is automatically waning. Especially when that sector offers a lot of value for the money.

So: every time you see a call for tablet computing, regardless of its source, you should remember that somewhere behind it, there’s a manufacturer who wants to sell you more stuff at higher prices. Paul Graham calls such beasts “the Submarine,” and if you want to understand how you’re being marketed to, you should read that essay. The PC manufacturer can’t really sell you more stuff in PC laptops and desktops these days because they’re too inexpensive and interchangeable. Apple can sell you design and an unusual operating system.

Maybe Lenovo can charge above-average prices because of the Thninkpad’s reputation for durability, but that’s it. Everyone else is scrambling because consumers dominate producers when it comes to PCs. So we get stories like the one above; and, if, as Tyler Cowen speculates in this example, the U.S. economic model moves closer to Japan and capital depreciates, expect to see even more calls for tablets and so forth. Anything to avoid acknowledging that an existing stock of capital is Good Enough.

And you can expect to see misleading headlines like the one above. It’s frustrating to read stuff like this:

Computer makers are expected to ship only about 4 percent more PCs this year than last year, according to IDC, a research firm. Tablets, in contrast, are flying off store shelves. Global sales are expected to more than double this year to 24.1 million, according to Forrester Research.

How does an increase in the absolute number and the percentage of PCs sold an indicating of waning? I think that means computer makers will ship over a hundred million units, compared to a quarter as many tablets. I checked out Dell’s website, and one can buy a very nice Inspiron desktop with a dual-core AMD processor, 3 GB of RAM, and a 1 TB hard drive for about $400. Get a cheapie 20″ monitor, and you’ve got a very competent machine that’ll run Windows passable well for under $600. Get a sweet 24″ IPS monitor as good or better than the one in my 2007 24″ iMac for another $500, and you’re still under $1,000. That’s why desktops aren’t going anywhere and all this blah blah blah about tablets is important but also overrated by tech sites chasing the new shiny but who also think that everyone has, if not an unlimited budget, then at least a very substantial one for technical toys. Given my work, it’s probably not surprising that I have a higher-than-average budget for technical toys and tools, since I use my computer every day and often for very long stretches, but for people who aren’t writers, hackers, day traders, pornographers, and the like, having an expensive computer and a tablet and a phone is, if not overkill, then at least overpriced.

Some people get this—here’s a Time story that’s as an example—but too many don’t, especially in the press, which follows the tech industry like a marketing arm instead of an independent evaluator.

One more point: PCs are still better for some tasks. Maybe not for browsing Facebook and YouTube, but anything that requires a keyboard isn’t just better on a computer—it’s way better. Maybe students are going to write papers on iPads or iPad-like devices, but I’m skeptical, and even if one has a couple of substantial text-writing efforts a year, it’s going to be tempting to keep a keyboard around. I could be crazy; people are apparently writing novels on cell phones in Japan and now other countries, but producing a novel on a phone doesn’t sound appetizing from the perspective of either the writer, who can’t really get in the zone over the course of a hundred words, or the reader, who has to endure writing from someone who doesn’t appear to, say, go back and edit their novel as a coherent whole. Most people don’t seem to much like 19th Century novels that were published serially, and “lack of editing” and “lack of brevity” might be two reasons. The first will probably haunt cell phone novelists.

Then again, looking at the bestseller lists, maybe there isn’t much to go but down.

PCs and other form factors are going to coexist. Coexistence is a less sexy story than death, but it’s truer. In one Hacker News comment thread “jeffreymcmanus” observed, “People don’t stop buying the old stuff just because there’s new stuff. See also: horses, bicycles, cars.” Well, people have mostly stopped buying horses, because cars offer superior functionality in virtually all circumstances, but the point remains. Another commenter, “mcantelon,” said:

Yeah, which is why the “post-PC” terminology has a propaganda tone. It’s not going to be “post-PC”: more like “pop computing” or “computing lite”.

He’s right. Which is okay: I have nothing against tablets or cell phones. Use whatever works. Just don’t pretend PCs are going away or automatically declining.

EDIT 2015: As of this edit I’m using a 27″ Retina iMac. The hardware is incredible. The best is still yet to come.


See also this post on whether you should buy a laptop or desktop and this related post on the reliability of each form factor.

How to buy a Mac

Apple updates their computers every nine to fifteen months or so. If you buy at the beginning of the “product cycle,” you usually get really good bang for their buck: fast components for reasonably prices. Toward the end of the product cycle, deals aren’t as good.

People often ask for advice about whether they should buy that MacBook or iMac; this is especially common on the Ars Technica Mac Board, and I’ve realized that there’s a relatively simply algorithm to determine whether you should buy now or wait. One person, “masonk,” made this handy flow chart, which is explained in words below:

The standard advice:

If you don’t have a working, usable computer and need one, buy it.

Check the Mac Rumor’s Buyers Guide. Has the computer been updated within the last six months? If so, buy it: an upgrade in the near future is unlikely.

If not, are we within six weeks of the World Wide Developer Conference, MacWorld (or whatever January event might replace it), or a “special media event?” Can you wait the six weeks—that is, do you have a computer that’s still usable? If so, wait, as there’s a good chance of product updates.

If we’re not within six weeks of a major event, buy it anyway, as you don’t know when an update might appear.

A new metric for writerly accomplishment

Perhaps this is really an old metric, but if so, it’s new to me because I noticed it today and am not aware of having read about it elsewhere. I suspect that the amount of carpal tunnel-style pain in my hands at the end of the day might be correlated with the amount of writing done. Although I have one of the world’s best computer workspaces, enough keyboard pounding will eventually make the bridge between my thumbs and fingers ache. I’ve learned to use both thumbs to hit the spacebar key, but even so, I favor the right, and it correspondingly bothers me more.

Aside from flattering my inner masochist, the “pain metric” has advantages over other measurement systems like word/page count or time spent (see Writers on Writing from the New York Times for thoughts on those methods) because it considers all that rewriting time as equivalent to new work. This metric also can’t be fulfilled by staring out the window all day. I suppose surfing the Internet might be a confounding factor, but I often disconnect distraction when I have real things to do, and so it shouldn’t provide too much interference.

The major project I’m working on isn’t for blog consumption, and it helps explain why posting has become weekly instead of closer to daily. Should it come to fruition, expect to hear more, and if not, then I guess this post, appropriately regarding pain, will be the primary marker of its existence.

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