Silicon Insider: Is the PC Doomed?

With the rush to add cool features to the iPhone, the PC may get left behind.

June 6, 2008 — -- Where did the personal computer go?

The best way to find out is to keep an eye on next week's Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). For the first time ever, this conference has sold out – and that means it won't be just Mac software developers showing up, but a whole new generation of companies designing for the iPhone …including a bunch of outfits that have never considered working with Apple before.

At a time when the feud between Gates and Ballmer is hitting the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and erstwhile partner AT&T is all but forcing iPhone users to hack their devices (and thus free Apple, with full deniability, from that partnership), all Jobs & Co. have to do right now is just stay the course and not screw up.

Of course, Apple has much bigger plans than that.

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I don't have to tell you that there's been a lot of speculation about what's going to be in the next generation iPhone: solar power, 3G, etc. But the simple fact is that these upgrades are now less important than the 3rd Party feeding frenzy going on around the platform: that's where the really important stuff – GPS, shopping, games — is going to come from in the next couple years.

Apple is shrewdly going to open an iPhone Apps department in all of its stores, as well as a Web site dedicated to 3rd Party offerings – and thus simultaneously provide distribution and retail channels to help those developers succeed and, as always with Apple, maintain a chokehold on those developers.

Needless to say, Apple isn't alone in pursuing this strategy. As I've noted before, there are a lot of things I don't particularly like about the iPhone, and once you get past its unmatched user interface there are a lot of huge market holes that are being exploited by Apple's more seasoned competitors, such as Nokia and Blackberry. They too are enjoying an explosion in new applications development.

Where the Action Is

Where are these developers coming from?

Well, as always, many of them are brand new, freshly minted entrepreneurs obsessed with one idea or another. But most are established application design outfits who made their bones in the computer world and are now jumping into mobile phones. After all, that's where the excitement is these days …and, they hope, where the money soon will be too.

In my experience, when you see this kind of shift, it not only suggests where the new business is going to be, but, in the void it leaves behind, what technology is about to fade into old age.

The phone world's gain is the personal industry's loss – there is only so much design talent to go around, and with telephony taking a bigger slice of the pie, computers are going to be increasingly left with crumbs.

Interestingly, Macworld magazine asked the same question about the iPhone developers: Would their shift to iPhone apps mean a reduction in their work on future iMac programs?

Daniel Jalkut, founder of Red Sweater Software, makers of MarsEdit blogging software, replied. "I think there is some short-term risk that Mac software developers will slow down their desktop software development, in order to come up to speed with iPhone development, but in the longer term the same basic factors will motivate development."

Don't believe it.

Apple has shrewdly gone to great lengths to make it easy for developers to move back and forth between the two platforms. But human nature is what it is, and the simple fact is that mobile is now where the excitement is. It fires the imaginations of the smartest people in the industry. It's where the big money is likely to be. And so, is it any wonder that the best talent is now migrating from the so-called "second screen" (computers) to the "third screen" (phones)?

Sure, you'll still see new computer applications in the years to come, but the intellectual capital has moved on, so the next generation of PC offerings won't be as revolutionary as those in the past, the code will be buggier, the delivery dates will slip.

We've seen all of this before, in everything from minicomputers to newspapers to network television to job placement. Once an intriguing new platform comes along, talent quickly gravitates to it.

In the process, the latter becomes even more dynamic and appealing (embarking on an upwards "virtuous cycle"), while the older technology, even when it recognizes that it is at mortal risk, no longer has the creative horsepower to implement its strategic response (thus, falling into a downward "vicious cycle").

That's what's going on right now in the PC industry. There's still nice machines being made by HP, Apple, Sony and Dell these days, but they are evolutionary and taking advantage of Moore's Law; not taking revolutionary leaps.

Indeed, it is likely that we will never again see another revolutionary PC on the order of the iMac or the Vaio. The only real area of innovation in personal computers these days is, not surprisingly, in handhelds, which seems to be enjoying a contact high from all the excitement in the phone world. In the end, it is likely that these handhelds will morph into the phone world too – which has probably been the plan all along.

Bidding the PC Goodbye

Living with tech is always full of coincidences. As I was reading about the rush of developers to the Apple WWDC, I had just made a decision to get rid of my desktop PC.

I've owned desktop computers almost as long as they've existed. I got my first computer, an Apple III directly from Jobs and Markkula back in the late '70s, and between Macs and IBM machines – as well as various models provided to me at the office – I've had one ever since.

But I also began buying my first laptops (the first being a Toshiba) about 15 years ago. And, like most people, I used the laptop for travel and the desktop for serious work, as the latter was always a technological generation newer and much more powerful.

But then something happened last autumn. Heading off for London for a month to edit a book, I bought a top-end Sony Vaio (for no other reason that compatibility, screen size and keyboard – I didn't care about the vendor) to take along.

I used that machine on the airplane, in the office and in my apartment …and by the time I returned to Silicon Valley, I was so accustomed to it, that without even thinking about it, it became my primary computer.

I'm writing my column on it right now – in fact, I just wrote my new book on it as well. Ironically, I have it on a folding table next to my desk, which is still freighted with my desktop, printer, display, keyboard, etc., all but the printer becoming covered with dust.

So, as it happens, just a few days ago, I finally decided to get rid of the damn thing – and I've been slowly packing it up to give to a friend. No regrets.

Today's laptops are nearly as powerful as desktops and have all of the processing firepower an average person like me needs. And now that I'm untethered forever, I know it won't be hard to migrate still further onto a mobile platform. It seems crazy now, but I can still imagine one day doing all of my writing on my phone — with the help of nice keyboard.

A couple years ago, in this very column I predicted that the Age of the PC was over, that it had done its job and would now fade away into exciting new forms. A lot of readers disputed my prediction then. I wonder how many, like me, are junking their desktop computers right now – and spending more time these days on their Blackberries than on their laptops? Do they still think I'm wrong?

TAD'S TAB: There is a massive amount of free music on the Internet, but it is nearly impossible to find rare tracks from lesser-known artists. Luckily now offers a vast collection of music of nearly every song from even minor bands. It's free (hmmmm) and the songs are simple to download. It also features the ability to create playlists and share music via Web 2.0 communication networks such as Twitter.

This is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michael S. Malone is one of the nation's best-known technology writers. He has covered Silicon Valley and high-tech for more than 25 years, beginning with the San Jose Mercury News, as the nation's first daily high-tech reporter. His articles and editorials have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Economist and Fortune, and for two years he was a columnist for The New York Times. He was editor of Forbes ASAP, the world's largest-circulation business-tech magazine, at the height of the dot-com boom. Malone is the author or co-author of a dozen books, notably the best-selling "Virtual Corporation." Malone has also hosted three public television interview series, and most recently co-produced the celebrated PBS miniseries on social entrepreneurs, "The New Heroes." He has been the "Silicon Insider" columnist since 2000.