How we got here
We started off with desktop computers. The Apple II, Mac, IBM PCs, and even Commodore and Atari machines were all designed to mostly stay in one place. Our first portables were pretty ugly. My own first portable from Panasonic, called the Sr. Partner, weighed in around 35 pounds, and even had a built-in thermal printer and a plasma screen that displayed, wait for it, an amazing two colors. Both orange. These machines wouldn’t run on batteries, and were basically desktop computers with smaller, more limited screens, and handles for lugging them around.
We then moved to laptops, and even early tablets, but the laptop form factor held. They had batteries, but two hours on battery was often a stretch. Best of that early lot was the IBM Butterfly laptop, which showcased both the promise and the problem. It was wonderfully portable, but slow as snot.
Laptops didn’t become truly viable until the beginning of the last decade, and desktop computers have started to fall off in popularity since then. But laptops were still smaller, slower, and really just portable desktops. Tablets were basically expensive laptops with or without keyboards, and not very popular.
Now jump ahead to the iPad. Suddenly tablets are the thing, and laptops began to emulate them. They’re very light, reasonably fast, but with ever smaller screens and tinier keyboards, which are often touch based. Yes, we’re now far more mobile, but far less productive.
We’re trained to think that this process is evolutionary, that desktops gave way to laptops, which give way to tablets. But that’s like saying four-door sedans gave way to two-door sedans, which gave way to Mazda Miatas. You can’t live off a cell phone or a 7-inch tablet, yet that’s where the market seems to think evolution is taking us. With a large cell phone or small tablet, you don’t need a laptop as much when you are mobile, so if anything, laptops might be more ripe for replacement. The powerful, productive desktop still has a role to play.
We need a new desktop
Back in the 80s, people speculated that personal computers were about to kill the mainframe. Yet here, 30 years later, it is IBM’s most profitable line. But it isn’t the same mainframe we knew back then, the product had to be updated to address today’s needs. If IBM hadn’t done that, it would have died years ago as predicted.
That will be challenge for desktops. Because of the perception that desktops are dead, few manufacturers are making major efforts to update them. Case design stopped advancing about 10 years ago, and while external skins keep changing, the tower and mini-tower, which form the backbone of this segment, have stagnated. These designs are arguably better than all-in-ones because they are more flexible, they can more easily be updated, and they can address more and different sizes of screens more aggressively. With monitors, bigger is always better, unless you have to carry them.
In addition to upgrading the designs, the ecosystem really needs to aggressively create a “better together” solution with tablets. Ideally when you grab your tablet or smartphone and leave your desktop, whatever it was you were working with goes with you until you can once again get back to a bigger machine. Technologies like OnLive desktop, Windows To Go, Skydrive, Office 365 and others will sort of get you there, but they need to be packaged and presented better. Desktops should offer an experience very similar to what you get with books on multiple Kindle readers and apps today; it doesn’t matter which device you grab, not only is your book on it, it’s opened to right where you left off.
Wanted: Desktop visionary
Lenovo is likely one of the companies likely to figure out that desktops are still viable – and give them the reinvention they need. The company’s 27-inch table-top all-in-one was arguably one of the most innovative PCs at CES 2013, and it was a desktop PC (even though it had a short-term battery).
Even Vizio, which seemed to get this “better together” concept early on, isn’t executing it with PCs and tablets. I’m kind of surprised at this, since PC vendors are fighting on foreign terrain with tablets, and this strategy would let them bring the battle back to their own turf. A next-generation desktop PC designed to pair perfectly with tablets and smartphones could shift the advantage back their way… if they would build it.
I think someone will figure this out eventually, much as IBM did with the mainframe, but I also think we’ll be sorry it took them so long. I’m imagining a desktop that’s small, fast, with lots of capacity, a large 4K display, and a high-speed tablet sync connection.
Guest contributor Rob Enderle is the founder and principal analyst for the Enderle Group, and one of the most frequently quoted tech pundits in the world. Opinion pieces denote the opinions of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of Digital Trends.