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PC deathwatch: Cloud to replace personal computers by 2014, says study

dead pc laptopCloud computing evangelists have been pronouncing the death of the PC for years; now Gartner, the world’s leading IT research firm, has weighed in on the issue with a new report that predicts personal cloud services will replace the traditional PC as the dominant form of business computing by 2014. Although that date seems a bit hasty given how long large scale IT changes typically take in the corporate world, Gartner analysts identified five “megatrends” that they predict will come together and lead to the rapid adoption of the cloud in business. Among them: The consumerization of tech, virtualization, and a dramatic increase in user mobility.

“Major trends in client computing have shifted the market away from a focus on personal computers to a broader device perspective that includes smartphones, tablets and other consumer devices,” said Steve Kleynhans, research vice president at Gartner, according to a press release. “Emerging cloud services will become the glue that connects the web of devices that users choose to access during the different aspects of their daily life.”

There is no denying that the consumerization of technology has led many businesses to change tactics based on employee needs and desires. The recent and precipitous decline of BlackBerry in the business world is perhaps the starkest example of this trend, as workers have pressured business IT departments to adapt to their devices of choice. But for this tendency to hold true for cloud computing, consumers must rely on the cloud heavily outside of work, and this simply is not yet the case. Although specific cloud services have taken off in a huge way, especially in regard to storage, an all-encompassing cloud-OS of the sort that would be necessary to usurp the desktop PC has not seen widespread adoption. Google’s Chromebook, which was the first earnest attempt at this tectonic shift, was a fairly dismal piece of tech, crippled precisely by its reliance on the cloud.

Decline of the PC 

Nevertheless, consumers have been voting with their wallets for years: PC sales declined by almost 6 percent in the first half 2011 — of all the major PC manufacturers, only Apple saw a significant increase in sales. For comparison, Dell and Acer were both down by 10 and 25 percent, respectively. Even manufacturing giant Foxconn took a 13 percent revenue hit in February, due almost exclusively to a reduction in PC orders, reports Digitimes.

And it won’t surprise anyone to know that mobile devices have had a blockbuster year by comparison. Tablets saw a massive 207 percent increase in sales, and smartphone use grew by a healthy 63 percent, according to Tech Radar. But if you assume the PC market slump is directly related to the rise in mobile use, think again: Only 14 percent of iPad buyers are choosing between an iPad and a personal computer when making their purchase decisions, according to a study by The NPD Group — meaning the vast majority of users are simply buying tablets to supplement their PC use. The more likely explanation for the decline in PC sales is that as consumers begin to use different devices for different functions, they no longer need the latest, greatest PC to do it all.

Rise of the cloud

There is no question that the cloud is the future — it’s cost effective and it’s customizable in a way the traditional PC could never hope to be. It is, in many senses, what personal computing should be — a collection of programs, settings, and files that follow you from home to work to the train, on any device that you’ve got. But this utopian vision of computing requires a few assumptions that may not always hold true. One is that broadband Internet, the type we’ve grown accustomed to having in our homes and offices, stays relatively unlimited. We’ve already seen AT&T capping its adsl service at 150 gigabytes a month in some markets, and although that number seems relatively high today, just imagine a device that sucks up bandwidth every moment that it’s on — and then imagine reaching your data cap and not being able to do a thing. Although there are surely Silicon Valley geniuses toiling away right now to achieve the perfect synthesis of local and cloud-based storage, it is an issue that needs to be addressed before the technology can be considered mature. And then there is the ever-looming issue of security; if cloud-storage king Dropbox could make a mistake that resulted in allowing anyone to access anyone else’s account, the system is obviously not foolproof —remember, that security breach actually came from an internal upgrade, not a malicious hacking attempt. Regardless, a lot can change in two years, especially in tech, and it seems that Gartner feels the benefits of the cloud will far outweigh the risks.  

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