Desktop PC Killers: Past, Present, and Future

The desktop PC is dead; the era of the gleaming beige tower is over. The age of smartphones, laptops, and tablets is here--or so say numerous pundits and critics.

The only problem is that the desktop PC is alive and kicking--though it's not quite as popular as it used to be.

"Over the last few years, the share of PC sales has stabilized around 80 percent notebooks and 20 percent desktops," Stephen Baker, Vice President of Industry Analysis for market research firm NPD Group recently told PCWorld.

Notebooks did take a huge bite out of the desktop's market share in the early to mid-2000s, Baker says. But desktop sales have since stabilized, accounting for 20.3 percent of all PC sales among U.S. consumers in 2011, with similar share numbers over the past few years.

[Also see: The Desktop PC is Dead -- Long Live the Desktop]

Critics, pundits, analysts, and even executives at technology firms, however, can't stop consigning the desktop to the history books. With that in mind, here's a look at ten past, present, and future desktop killers including gaming consoles, recessions, computers without hard drives, and of course, tablets and laptops.

1. Laptops

Nothing says the desktop is dead like the holidays, and Reuters was leading the funeral dirge for the noble desktop PC in early 2009. The newswire reported that not one desktop model made Amazon's list of top-selling PCs and PC hardware during the 2008 Christmas season. Seven laptops, meanwhile, were popular sellers. Reuters called this "yet another sign that the former dominance of desktop PCs is fading," and later wondered if there was "any room left for desktops in the brave new era of laptops."

2. Tablets

Ever since Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad in 2010, pundits have made pronouncements that the one-panel touch slate spelled doom for the lowly, traditional desktop PC. The iPad "is the biggest threat to the desktop as we know it," tech site Neowin declared in October. Deciding factors for the demise of the desktop include the iPad's long battery life, and the fact that most people use their PC for things that are much easier to do on a tablet, such as checking email and Facebook and watching streaming video.

3. Smartphones

Did you hear that smartphones are heralding the end of the desktop PC? Yep--in fact, desktop PCs will be on their last legs within five years, CNET quoted technology executive Nigel Clifford as saying. Clifford made that prediction more than five years ago in October 2006 when he was the CEO of Symbian Software Ltd. Remember Symbian? It created a mobile operating system that was fully acquired by Nokia in 2008. Fast forward to 2012--the Finnish phone maker is sidelining the Symbian OS in favor of Windows Phone 7. And desktops? Still around.

4. Video
Games

You heard it here second: Video games are killing desktop PC computing. That's the argument Benchmark Reviews Executive Editor Olin Coles posited in early 2011. Despite his title ("How Video Games Killed Desktop PC Computing"), however, Coles is predicting only a long, slow death for "PCs made just for gaming, overclocking, or any other recreational enjoyment." Coles argues that, as more people choose notebooks and mobile devices over desktops, the tower PC's last stand will be as a gaming platform. But with the popularity of console gaming and game makers designing new games for consoles first, the PC is on its way out. Coles isn't ready to pronounce the death of the desktop just yet, but, he says, "the end of an era is near, so enjoy it while you still can."

5. Internet, Web, Cloud

"The desktop computer industry is dead. Innovation has virtually ceased," Steve Jobs told Wired in 1996 during his exodus from Apple, the company he cofounded. Jobs went on to say that the Web was the future, arguing that hardware designed specifically to serve the Web (so-called Web terminals) was a possible future beyond the desktop. To be fair, Jobs was arguing mostly that Microsoft was too dominant in the desktop space for any innovation to happen. Jobs' quote, however, is an example of how, similar to the present day, people in the mid- to late 1990s saw the Web and Web applications as the future of computing.

6. Network Computers

Along with the '90s-era Web frenzy came hardware such as Sun Microsystems' 1996 breakthrough device, the JavaStation, a so-called network computer (NC), designed solely to get the user online. These devices had no hard disks, slots, or CD-ROM drives and were priced at $700 and up. Other companies including Oracle started touting the network computer as the end of the desktop. At one point, even Microsoft tried its hand at an NC called the Simply Interactive PC. But the NC ultimately failed to gain traction as PCs dropped in price throughout the '90s, and as desktops offered users Web browsers to get online.

7. The 2008-2009 Recession

Sales for desktop PCs dropped precipitously during the 2008-2009 recession while notebook sales kept going, according to British tech news site The Inquirer. This led some to speculate that the death of the desktop had come that much closer as more people moved onto notebook computers. How times have changed since then. Market research firm IDC predicted in June that the worldwide desktop PC market would continue to grow through 2015 by about 1 percent each year. Notebooks, meanwhile, will grow at a much faster rate of around 15 percent per year between 2012 and 2015.

8. The Zero Client

The Year: 2008. The desktop killer: a small cube with a footprint about the size of a CD case called the Pano. A so-called zero client, the Pano consists of a mouse, a keyboard, a monitor, and an external USB drive that relies on to access a Microsoft Windows virtual machine stored on a remote server. The device has no operating system, software drivers, CPU, memory, hard disk, or graphics chip. "The Pano and visualization technology will revolutionize the desktop," a UK Pano reseller in 2008 told PCWorld's British-based sister publication, Techworld. Pano Logic, the company behind the Pano, is still selling its zero client, but zero clients have yet to replace the desktop.

9. Chromebooks: NC 2.0?

"Zero-maintenance computers such as the Chromebook will kill the PC and Windows within 10 years, delivering a punch to the solar plexus of Microsoft's core Windows business," TheMotleyFool's Tim Beyers said in May. Beyers argues that browser-based computers are the future thanks to the popularity of online services such as social networking and video streaming, and to the use of cloud-based virtual platforms in the enterprise. It's not just desktops that are getting the axe: Beyer believes all PCs will be gone by 2020, at least for enterprise users. It's not clear how many Chromebooks have been sold to date, but price cuts by Chromebook makers over the holidays suggest that the browser-as-OS concept--the basis of Chromebooks--has yet to catch on.

10. Desktops:
The Ultimate Desktop Killer

The desktop PC is dead, at least as a tower that sits beside your desk or underneath your monitor, according to PCWorld's own Nate Ralph. The tower will become a "relic of a bygone age," Ralph says, retaining just a small subset of users who need customizable hardware--people like gamers and enterprise users. The mainstream desktop, meanwhile, will morph into the all-in-one PC thanks to innovations such as Intel's Ivy Bridge and AMD's Piledriver chips that allow for thinner and sleeker desktops.

The desktop is dead, long live the desktop.

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