Pausing on the PC death march

Does it bother you that we’re heading toward a post-ownership computing world where we will have little control over our videos, music, software programs and devices? It does me.

I am a dinosaur.

The reports of the impending death of the PC are not greatly exaggerated. The PC is yesterday’s technology, its demise hastened by smartphones, tablets and the cloud-computing services that make large-capacity computing devices unnecessary.

But I am part of a shrinking minority, still doing most of my work on PCs. In my case, they are Linux-powered PCs, but that is not the point. I would still be a dinosaur if I used Mac OS X or Windows.

You’ve probably seen the numbers that show what an oddity I am. Gartner reported that worldwide PC shipments dropped by 9.6% in 2016’s first quarter. IDC said: No, it was worse. By its count, the PC market dropped by 11.5%. The two firms agreed that fewer than 65 million units shipped. That’s the worst the PC market has been since 2007. Even Apple saw Mac sales drop by 12% year over year in its latest quarter.

Unlike the dinosaurs, I can see the end coming. But, though the hurtling comet is heading straight for me, I’m not budging. That’s because I’m not ready to give up the greatest gift of the PC revolution: our individual control over all of our computing experiences.

I remember what it was like before that revolution, when computing was centrally controlled. Back then, I was part of the IT priesthood that held sway over all digital resources. Nevertheless, I joyfully embraced the switch from mainframes to CP/M computers, the Apple II and the IBM PC in the ’70s and ’80s. At the beginning of my career, everything I did ran on centrally controlled IBM 360 mainframes and DEC PDP-11s minicomputers. Today, everything I do runs on computers I control.

But I’m out of the mainstream now. We’re heading back to where we started in IT. Instead of mainframes, we have clouds. Instead of PCs, we have smartphones, which aren’t really all that smart if you want to do more than consume data.

For me, that’s the problem. We’re giving away ever more of our control, but this time it’s not the IT priesthood taking control of the horizontal and the vertical, but companies such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft.

It’s understandable why this is happening. It can be much cheaper for a business to offload a lot of what IT has handled to a cloud company. And individual users just find it extremely convenient. I myself have replaced my Lenovo ThinkPads with Chromebook Pixels. Mind you, I run Linux on those Chromebooks, but I could do just fine with Chromebooks and Google services.

But — and this is a very big “but” — I don’t feel comfortable about giving Google, or anyone else, the keys to my applications and data. And I’m not thrilled with the post-ownership computing world either.

I don’t know how else to characterize what’s happening. For example, do you still own, or at least license, software on your PC? Or do you use something such as Google for Work or Microsoft Office 365? Increasingly, the answer is you’re using cloud-based software.

What about storage? Are you keeping your files on your hard drive? Or do you store your important data on Google Drive, iCloud or some similar service? Same story: More and more of us are keeping our files on public cloud services.

The post-ownership trend extends to entertainment. CD and DVD sales continue to decline. Instead of buying media, we’re streaming it from services such as Spotify, Pandora and Netflix. And according to Amazon, we were already buying — or should I say renting? — more e-books than paperbacks back in 2011.

The same can be said even for our devices. My smartphones barely last a two-year upgrade cycle. I may own them, but it sure feels like I’m renting them.

Compare all that to the stability and control the PC affords us. I mean, I still have computers that are more than 10 years old that I use every day. And I still run PC-based applications such as LibreOffice and the Evolution email client and have no plans to replace them with Google Docs and Gmail. I also run my own servers, including the exim email server and the ownCloud infrastucture-as-a-service (IaaS) cloud.

So call me old-fashioned. It’s true. I’m a book-reading, CD-listening dinosaur, tapping away on the keyboard of my PC. For me, though, the PC represents hard-won freedom, and I’m not ready to give that up.

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Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Computerworld (US)
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