Remember the death of the PC? The workhorse of the consumer technology industry has reportedly been “dying” for years now, which really just means that it’s aging. A few years ago, however, the rise of the tablet had industry watchers convinced it was about to strike the laptop’s final blow.
There was one problem with that story. Yes, tablets were great for browsing the web, watching movies, and playing mobile games. They even have some neat applications in the workplace, especially for people who work on their feet. But those who tried to replace their PCs with tablets quickly found that smaller and flatter isn’t always better. For crucial tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet crunching, hardcore gaming, or graphic design, a touchscreen proved a poor substitute for a real keyboard. Meanwhile, the growing size of smartphones has allowed them to usurp some of tablets’ early use cases. When Apple reported its quarterly earnings this week, it reported a year-on-year drop in iPad sales for the 11th consecutive quarter.
That’s the kind of steady decline we might have instead expected from the PC industry. But while quarterly iPad sales have plummeted over the past three years, Mac sales have held steady. A 14 percent dip in Mac sales this quarter can be attributed largely to Apple’s delay in updating the category: Sites across the web have been warning people for months to wait for the new ones.
Outside Cupertino, PC sales have mostly trended downward. Still, there are signs that it may have more life left than the devices that were supposed to replace it. In 2015, Wired’s Davey Alba reported that not only was the PC dying, it was “not coming back.” A year later, in July 2016, the same reporter’s headline told us that PC sales were up in the United States. That’s thanks in part to analysts’ decision to include in the category hybrid devices such as Microsoft’s Surface, which looks like a tablet but competes more directly with Apple’s MacBooks than its iPads. The blurring of this line suggests that tablets haven’t so much beaten the PC as joined it.
Now for the plot twist. At Microsoft’s Windows 10 event on Wednesday, the headliner was neither a tablet nor a notebook computer. The Surface Pro and the Surface Book rated only brief mentions. The main attraction: a massive, gorgeous, $3,000 desktop PC called the Surface Studio.
Microsoft bills it as a “new class of device” designed for “creative and professionals.” The ultra-HD 4.5k 28-inch screen, which is just an inch thick, pivots on a hinge from an upright desktop display to a touchscreen “digital canvas.” In this configuration, which Microsoft calls Studio Mode, it reclines at a 20-degree angle, like a drafting table. You can use it two-handed with a digital pen and a new accessory called Surface Dial, which activates application-specific functions when you place it on the screen. Whether the Surface Studio sells in large numbers remains to be seen, but it feels like a coup for Microsoft regardless. It was just the type of delightful surprise that the technology industry used to expect from Apple, and it shows Microsoft competing on innovation and quality rather than price and compatibility.
It makes sense that Microsoft’s growing hardware division would turn its attention to the desktop market. Productivity has always been its strength, mobile technology its weakness. Yet for several years Apple has been the only company still making interesting PCs, and even Apple has been slacking off lately. This at a time when early adopters are buying VR headsets that require ultra-powerful desktop PCs with fancy graphics chips. (In what seems like a missed opportunity, the Surface Studio offers underwhelming graphics chips that make it suboptimal for heavy-duty VR. Perhaps Microsoft can address that with its next version.)
The PC’s unforeseen return to the spotlight is not over. On Thursday, Apple is expected to finally reveal its latest laptops and desktops. Among them should be a new MacBook Pro, which is rumored to have replaced some keys with a touch-enabled panel. Compared with the Surface Studio, that sounds like a rather incremental maneuver, along the lines of removing the headphone jack on the iPhone 7. But then, Apple may have in store some surprises of its own.
Regardless, loyal MacBook owners’ public venting of frustration at the long wait for an upgrade suggests there’s some pent-up demand for the company’s new PCs. It wouldn’t be surprising to see U.S. PC sales tick upward once again in the final quarter of this year.
PCs will probably never regain their central position in personal computing—that mantle has passed to the smartphone. For many individuals, a phone is enough, while for others a cheaper tablet can suffice as a backup. But PCs’ place in offices and living rooms, especially in relatively wealthy homes and countries, may be more secure than industry watchers had imagined. And Microsoft’s big bet on Surface Studio suggests they’ll remain a staple of design studios and other specialized workplaces.
Tablets were supposed to be the new PCs—the exciting personal computers of the future. But if anything, it’s the other way around. PCs appear poised to be the new tablets—versatile devices that may not be essential for everyone, but that excel at specific applications and fill large personal and professional niches. Tablets, meanwhile, have stagnated. And guess which category is getting the premature obituaries now.