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Has the PC finally had its day?

03 January 2013

With the Consumer Electronics Show 2013 just days away, one-quarter of America's computer owners will seek more mobile computing hardware when their current PC is retired.

According to a survey of US consumers by research firm Bovitz and the University of Southern California's Annenberg Centre for the Digital Future, twenty-five percent of computer owners say they may not replace their PC when their current machine becomes unusable, all but confirming the inexorable trend towards more mobile computing devices such as the tablet and smartphone.

On Tuesday (January 8) the Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2013) throws open the doors of its Las Vegas venue to a public that will be eager to find out what's hot and what's not in the world of domestic electronic gadgetry. Whatever fires your imagination, be it a 110in LED TV, the first big OLED TV to hit the market or an ultra-high resolution camcorder, computing devices will likely take centre stage at this year's event, and in 2013 the tablet appears to be king.

Annenberg Centre director Jeffrey Cole says that the explosive growth of tablet adoption in recent years has created significant shifts in how, when, and why Americans go online. He believes it is inevitable that more computer users will make the switch to a 'PC-less lifestyle' by moving to tablets and other devices. These findings on PC use are the first results to be released from the Annenberg Centre’s annual report on the impact of the Internet in America, which is due to be released next month.

Not surprisingly, mobility is cited as a major reason for change. Indeed, more than half of PC owners who intend to switch cite a tablet’s mobility as a reason they will change (54 percent). Thirty-eight percent said that with a tablet they “can basically do everything I did on a personal computer,” and 34 percent said a tablet was easier to use than a PC.

And while tablet manufacturers hype style and trendiness, only 15 percent of users said they would switch to a tablet because it is 'cool' or 'stylish'. Other reasons cited for adopting a tablet include favourable pricing (22 percent), the ability to run apps (19 percent), greater functionality (19 percent), and that old gripe: “PCs take too long to boot up” (15 percent).

But before we get carried away by these statistics, the fact is that a whopping three-quarters of computer users remain loyal to the desktop format. When those users were asked why they would not switch to a tablet or similar device, 66 percent said a PC is more comfortable to use than a tablet, fifty-eight percent said they need a screen larger than that available on other devices, and 56 percent said a PC is better for complex tasks, or they feel more comfortable using a keyboard and/or mouse.
Other reasons to continue to use a PC include the need for software that is only available for PCs (43 percent), the need to regularly back-up data (28 percent), and worries about the security of other devices (25 percent).

So, is the PC all but dead?
Jeffrey Cole believes the lower prices for tablets that industry analysts predict for next year, will lead to an even greater shift toward tablet use. In the Annenberg Centre’s 2011 study, he predicted that over the next three years, the tablet will become the primary tool for personal computing needs  - not just for a quarter of Americans, but for almost all computer users.

“Use of a desktop PC may well dwindle to only 4-6 percent of computer users - computer-assisted designers, heavy-duty number crunchers, full-time writers, and college students while they are in college - and laptop use will probably decline as well,” he says. “The tablet is an inviting gadget. The desktop PC is a ‘lean forward’ device - a tool that sits on a desk and forces users to come to it. The tablet has a ‘lean-back’ allure - more convenient and accessible than laptops and much more engaging to use. However, the tablet is not yet established as a full-fledged computing tool."

So, for the vast majority of Americans - and, in their wake, presumably the rest of us - the tablet is likely to become the computer of choice by the middle of the decade; desktop PCs and even laptops, Mr Cole suggests, will simply "fade away”. But he cautions:

“The tablet has yet to prove its full functionality,” he says. “As more ambitious work on a tablet becomes possible as software choices grow, more users will move to tablets. Until then, we will see growing desire to move to tablet-only computing, but our findings show almost three-quarters of computer users are not yet ready to make the complete change. The industry talks about the tablet taking over, but for now there is still a substantial market for traditional PCs.”

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