Up Front: Serial PC Killers Strike Again

The PC is dead again, the victim of a strange new breed of serial killer. In bygone days, each serial killer claimed multiple victims. The chic serial killers of the PC added a new twist: There were many killers, but the victim was always one and the same--the PC.

First to murder the fledgling PC was the Big Iron Gang. This merciless band of mainframes, minicomputers, and terminals smart and dumb strangled the PC in its crib--only the PC was too stupid to realize it had met its end. On it crawled--right into the first onslaught of information appliances built in the early 1980s by Canon and Information Appliance, Inc. An appliance called the Canon Cat piled onto the lifeless PC and extinguished the last vestiges of vital signs. The PC, always slow on the uptake, failed to grasp the awful truth that it was dead, defunct, bereft of life, an ex-PC--just as surely as Monty Python's parrot was an ex-parrot.

Being dead, the PC was easy prey for natural born killers like the Newton, the pen computer, and various PDAs. These cutthroats left the PC even deader, so dead it hardly resisted the great network computer blitzkrieg of 1995. That was the year hordes of 200-MHz diskless demons began hooking their 28.8-kbps modems to the telephone network to download everything anyone could possibly need.

Nonpartisan witnesses like Paul Saffo of the Institute for the Future examined the PC's lifeless body and issued the appropriate pronouncement: "The PC is dead. It's the horse and carriage of the Information Revolution." NCs went on to capture the hearts of early adopters in 1996. Claiming lower operating costs than the PC, they rode a wave of TCO mania into big corporations in 1997 and became mainstream in 1998. It couldn't have happened if Java and the browser hadn't rendered the operating system and processor irrelevant. By March 1999, no PCs were left to hear IBM chief executive Lou Gerstner announce, "The PC era is over."

That makes the new millennium a PC-free zone. All business computing is done by big corporate IT directors using NCs and PDAs to control thousands of other NCs and PDAs. The personal aspects of computing belong to those daring young digerati with their information appliances and post-modern PDAs. The digerati can cite impressive sales figures to back their story. PDAs (mostly Palm Pilots) have sold like gangbusters--2.65 million units worldwide in 1998, according to International Data Corporation. While the NC can't match those numbers, IDC says that 305,000 "thin clients" shipped in the first half of 1999. Sales of information appliances are still being tabulated. What's certain is that NCs, PDAs, and information appliances have killed the PC.

True, PDAs that can't synchronize data with PCs don't sell. That's why Palm Pilots come with a cradle that simplifies the task. And I will be the first to admit that Web pages are much easier to read on a PC screen than on a pint-sized PDA, and that contact information (or any other kind of data) is much easier to enter on a PC keyboard than via miniature mock-keyboards or PDA pens. But the important thing to remember is that the PDA isn't a PC companion, it's a PC killer.

As for NCs, too much attention has been focused on the quantity of NC sales and not enough on the quality of the NC itself. NCs are replacing terminals at a snail's pace for a reason. NCs are the snails of the Information Age. They are supposed to move slowly. PCs are dead because they're quick. And the future belongs to the snails.

The Real Culprit

But if we had to pick one of the big three serial PC killers as chief culprit, it would have to be the information appliance. It's the information appliance that will rule the new millennium. How many information appliances will this take? As it turns out, the number could be an order of magnitude smaller than the number of digerati it takes to screw in a light bulb.

Pity the poor PC in its death spiral. According to IDC, worldwide PC sales went from 80.3 million in 1997 to 89.96 million in 1998 to approximately 110.8 million in 1999. This death spiral of some 280 million units is easily misdiagnosed. It's one of those rare ascending death spirals camouflaged by double-digit annual growth on a gigantic base.

A seer from the Institute for the Past looked at recent sales figures and drew an absurd conclusion. He saw a connection between the Internet explosion and the 280 million PCs that have been sold in the last three years. "The Internet has been good for the PC," he said, "because the PC is the device of choice for accessing the Internet." He wanted to join the digerati, but only a digeramus would see things that way.

Phil Lemmons is editorial director of PC World.

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