How QWERTY Will Save The PC

There's no getting around it: keyboards are holding tablets back.

As analysts like Gartner throw out predictions that worldwide tablet growth is expected to be 53.4% this year and PCs are declining by 11.2% in the same period, there are a lot of people who are proclaiming doom and gloom for the PC industry as a whole.

That will simply not be the case.

I have often said that the PC industry is in trouble because of the disruption brought by tablets. So have a lot of analysts. IDC predicted earlier this year that by 2015, sales of tablets will be larger than desktops, laptops and notebooks combined.

But this is a far cry from saying that PCs are going to die altogether.

The PC market place is shrinking, of that there is no doubt. But it is not going to go extinct. What we are seeing now is a culling of the PC sector, that is separating who bought PCs for work and who bought them for play.

Pulling The Ol' Switcheroo

In a way, the tablet device is capitalizing on a glaring weakness of PCs: a lot of these machines were marketed for reasons other than productivity. You can play games, talk to Grandma and Grandpa on the Internet, watch movies and read online content galore, the commercials said, and for lack of a better device, consumers bought into this completely.

This marketing began on the desktops and continued apace on portable PC platforms. Everyone was doing it, because you had to have some reason to sell personal computers to home users who would otherwise have little reason to buy a computing device.

Then Apple did something pretty simple and very, very clever: they looked at their own marketing and sales data and that of less-expensive and faster-selling PCs and realized that if they could give users a device that could perform all of those non-productive tasks cheaper than a Windows PC, then they just might have something.

And they were exactly right.

The genius of the iPad for me was not the slick design or interface. It was the fact that here was a portable device that cost less than any decent portable PC on the market that I could carry around the house and surf the Web or run apps.

Interestingly, it was the opposite argument that almost kept me from getting a first-gen iPad in the first place: I worked from home, I had a laptop, why would I need a tablet? It would be the offer to write a book or two about the iPad that would justify my iPad use case to my wallet, but after using it for a while, the case was made very clear: a laptop or notebook, no matter how light, is no tablet.

Tablets are lighter, not as hot, not as clunky with cords. Tablets don't care if the person in the seat in front of you on the plane reclines five seconds after takeoff. In short: tablets make PCs—even mobile PCs—harder to justify as a tool for reading, watching or playing.

This is what we are seeing now: users who only look at Facebook, check their email or watch their favorite episodes of Star Trek realize they don't need the expense of a standalone or mobile PC anymore. Tablets are for consumers, not producers, and the declining sales of PCs are showing us all just how many people were basically using their PCs for such light (if important) purposes.

Not The End

But there will come a day in the next few years when the decline of the PC will have to level off and for one very simple reason.

There's still work to get done.

Tablets can be used for work, of course, but it is currently not an easy task. Long-form writing on a tablet requires something tablets don't have, which is a decent keyboard. Without some way to get the words in our heads into electronic form on a handheld, the PC still holds an advantage. Writing, in other words, is the safety net preventing the complete extinction of the PC.

Voice recognition is coming along pretty well, many are noting, but it's not perfect. And there is, for some, a big difference between verbalizing and writing. And there are feature gaps in productivity software on tablets. Like it or not, many of us are quite enamored with the feature set of office suite software, and many businesses and power users are not willing to see it go.

Tablets need a much stronger input device if they are to be used for productivity. Most human cultures are centered around the written word, not a purely oral tradition, so getting "pen to paper," even electronically, has to happen if a device is to be used for work.

Until such an interface method comes along, or more users learn to adapt to the interfaces that tablets do have, PCs have no fear of being eliminated altogether. The writers, the spreadsheet jockeys and the coders will all still rely on the PC to get work done.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia