Posted by Martyn Casserly 05 November 2013
Taking over from the PC: why smartphones and tablets aren't a panacea
Last month it was revealed that PC sales had continued their downward trend for the sixth quarter in a row. The projected future is also thought to be one that some manufacturers will not be looking forward to. In the same period last year industry analyst Gartner reported that the worldwide sales of PCs amounted to 87.8m while this year those figures dropped to 80.2m. Of course these are still huge numbers, but the fact that they are steadily decreasing is something worthy of concern and points to a changing technological landscape.
The suspected reasons for the slump are complex and varied, but theories are emerging about which are the most significant. Some point to the fact that many home PCs and laptops are now powerful enough that they don’t need upgrading quite so often. Then there’s the fact that Windows 8 hasn't been a particularly popular release, with the need for touch enabled hardware possibly holding people back while they wait and see how things shake out. Internet based services are also adding value to older machines, as they expand their capabilities in the Cloud.
The prolonged financial recession is a strong factor, as customers try to make money, and old hardware, stretch a little further. But of course there can be no question that the sudden and meteoric rise of tablets, allied to the ever more powerful smartphones that accompany us at all times, has probably had the most tangible impact of all.
In the same period that PCs stumbled to sales of around 80m units, the smartphone market grew by an impressive 39 percent, selling over three times as many devices, with IDC giving global figures of 258.4mn sales. Tablet sales also grew to 47.6m, which, while still well short of the traditional PC, is an upward trend that looks set to continue. With Apple releasing the new iPads in the past few weeks, Tesco launching the excellent and affordable Hudl, (watch our Hudl video review) Google’s revised Nexus 7, reviewed, wowing reviewers everywhere, and Amazon’s aggressively priced Kindle HD range seeing refreshed models, we could see record numbers of tablets appearing under Christmas trees in 2013.
Perhaps a more obvious sign of how the PC market is in a state of confusion is best represented by the barrage of new designs that have emerged since the introduction of Windows 8. Now there are laptops that transform into large, cumbersome tablets, devices whose screens flip over, or remove entirely to transform into a separate tablet, and desktop machines that can be leant back at mystifying angles. Microsoft itself has added to the miasma by beginning to build its own vision of the PC’s future with the Surface. See our Surface 2 video review
So far this has been a mixed bag, with the hybrid nature of the Windows 8 interface still proving hard to fully realise on a single device. Of course Microsoft’s entry to the hardware space has ruffled a few feathers, and we’re now seeing companies such as HP, Lenovo, Dell and Acer releasing a range of machines that don’t run Windows at all, instead dipping their toes in the waters of Android, ChromeOS and Linux.
So a question that poses itself is whether this is a good or bad thing? Obviously, by its very nature, technology is a constantly evolving medium, but the current path has some uncomfortable possibilities woven into its fabric. With computers becoming ubiquitous in the workplace there isn’t a tremendous need for many people to have a powerful system at home. If all you want to do is check your email, spend some time browsing online, and keep up to date with your social networks, then the iPad and its ilk make a lot of sense. Traditionally you’d also want a decent sized hard drive so that you could store your photographs and music, but even those are being easily transitioned to the web thanks to mobile phones syncing with Dropbox, Google +, Apple’s Photo Stream or your cloud of choice, and services such as iTunes Match, Google Music, and Spotify.
This is all good, as it saves the user from needing to think about how a device works or remembering to plug it into their PC to update the media content. Now we’re free to live the lives promised to us in the sun-drenched worlds of Samsung and Apple ads. Only, that’s not entirely true. Up until now the computers we’ve had have been pretty much open to use as we pleased. If you were handy with a screwdriver then you could also prolong the life of a machine by upgrading hard drives and RAM, while incurring relatively little expense. It’s true that many people didn’t do this themselves, but as all of us here at PC Advisor can attest, there are always friends or family members that will turn to the resident techie and ask them for help instead. Whereas in the past these requests would generally be met with a successful result (and hopefully the offering of babysitting or a large cake in return), the only assistance that will be offered in the case of a dropped iPad will be ‘take it to the Apple store’.
It’s a subtle turn of events, but with the glued shut, unrepairable devices that are beginning to replace our trusty old laptops and desktops, we are faced with an increased reliance on manufacturers. This is also becoming a reality on the software side. Unless you jailbreak your iOS device (which we wouldn’t recommend), then the only place you can get software is on the official Apple App Store, which the company tightly regulates. Microsoft is slowly implementing a similar strategy with the RT version of Windows, which runs software only from the proprietary store. This does have the enviable benefit of making the platforms more secure from viruses, but also gives the companies a tremendous amount of power over the applications you have access to, especially as the market starts to migrate towards them.
Google’s Play Store is more open, but concerns about the Android platform becoming an increasing target for malware has seen the search giant being pressured to increase security. Amazon has taken Android and turned it into a portal to its online services with the Kindle range, and Samsung recently showed its hand by staging its first developers conference in San Francisco, focussing on making its devices more interoperable. The Korean giant has also built its own app store into its devices and filled the storage with bespoke versions of its own software, presumably to increase your reliance on its products. All of this alludes to the main concern of what seems an unavoidable future - customer lock-in.
The ideal landscape for manufacturers is that you use only their products, buy through their stores, and upgrade regularly. This is never more evident than when you see how their various devices only work best when paired with another products from the same stable. Want to use AirPlay to watch something on your Apple TV? You’ll need an Apple product to send the signal. Want the new Samsung Smartwatch? You’ll also need the Galaxy Note 3 then. It makes sense from a technology perspective, as the manufacturer can optimise its own hardware, but there are too many instances when you feel it’s a restrictive practice that has the shareholders’ rather than customers’ best interests at heart.
The sad truth as we move into this new era of personal computing is that it’s becoming harder to resist the convenience that these offerings present. Once you’ve paid for apps that you like and grown used to how they work, you don’t want to repeat the cycle - and investment - on a new platform. Project this forward a few years and customers will be even more entrenched, held in place by media purchases or services that only work on a particular platform.
Mobile devices have indeed brought a sense of freedom and modernity with them, and we use ours every day without fail. They also usher in an age where you need to choose your platform wisely, as there’s a good chance you’ll be dependent on that company for a long time to come.