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June 10, 2011 8:21 pm

Cloud threatens to end PC’s reign

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Most computer users have been in thrall to the PC for so long that they find it hard to imagine a time when it is no longer at the centre of their personal technology landscape.

But envisaging such a future has not been a problem for many in the technology industry, who have chafed under the long rule of Microsoft and Intel, the twin powers of the PC world. That helps to explain why so many have been eager recently to declare the PC era over, and the machine itself dead.

Under the banner of a “post-PC” world, a motley crew of internet and technology companies has been agitating for a different approach. It is one in which a wide range of “smart” devices, from phones to TVs, become the access points to digital information, which resides in the “cloud” – a term for the industrial-scale data centres that are taking over the jobs of data storage and processing.

Having shown the way with devices such as the iPhone and iPad, Apple’s chief executive Steve Jobs gave things another strong nudge this week with the iCloud.

As with most sweeping claims, the term “post-PC” is both less and more than it seems. It is a gross exaggeration of the decline of the hardy personal computer, which after more than 30 years is still going strong. But it is also a helpful reminder of how the PC’s dominant influence over the way people live their digital lives is rapidly waning.

The machine itself is far from dead. At nearly 400m machines this year, sales are rising steadily, driven partly by an introduction into many new households in the developing world. However, at the frontiers of its empire, the PC is under attack.

Tablet computers, led by the iPad, are estimated to sell anywhere from 50m to 80m this year – a wide range that highlights the trouble many analysts are still having in trying to decide how big an impact the device will have and how fast.

How many of those sales will come at the PC’s expense is also a subject of intense debate, and one of the main reasons why a cloud has hung over Microsoft’s stock price in recent months. According to Goldman Sachs, which is among the most pessimistic on the issue, 35 per cent of tablet sales will replace PC sales this year, and the “cannibalisation” could get worse.

The PC has fought off attacks like this before – most recently, from low-cost devices known as the netbooks, though these eventually fell into line with the technology architecture of PCs.

Microsoft has adopted a similar strategy in response to the latest pretender to invade its turf: it wants to redefine the tablet as a PC. Earlier this month, it showed off its next version of Windows for the first time, running on a tablet – with a user interface adapted for the mobile, touchscreen world, but the guts of a full PC that is capable of running all the applications that live on a personal computer.

Intel has also sought to push out the boundaries of the PC. Late last month, the world’s biggest chipmaker showed off the design for what it called an “ultrabook” – a lightweight machine it claimed would account for 40 per cent of laptop sales next year, and reflecting heavy influences of tablets and Apple’s MacBook Air.

As Phil Schiller, Apple’s head of product marketing, declared recently of the thin, silvery slice of computing elegance: “The whole industry wants to copy it.”

Ultimately, debates like this over the form-factor of personal computing devices are beside the point, says Roger Kay, a technology industry analyst. “It’s a semantic problem,” he said. “The definition of PCs becomes irrelevant, it disappears.”

While PCs will continue to sell in large numbers, however, they are rapidly declining in influence. Sales this year will be exceeded for the first time by smartphones, which have had a remarkable rise in the four years since Apple introduced the iPhone.

With a new form of personal computing device shipping in such large numbers, it is no surprise that the focus of attention is shifting.

“The PC is no longer the nexus of innovation in the tech industry,” says Pat Gelsinger, a former chief technology officer at Intel. Developers have stopped writing software for the machine and are now producing applications that can run across a range of devices. “The PC is being seen as one more display device. The entire development world has moved on.”

The same shift is happening among consumers.

“We know we’re selling into a lot of places where the households just don’t have computers,” Scott Forstall, head of Apple’s software division, said this week. With the iCloud, he added, Apple wants to make it easier to run new digital devices without ever needing to hook them up to PCs. “So now, if you want to cut the cord, you can.”

For the venerable personal computer, it sounded like one more nail in the coffin.

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