Forecasts of the evolution of PC shipments estimate that approximately 380 million units will be sold by the end of 2010, some 70 million more compared to 2009. The vast majority of these units will ship with Microsoft’s Windows operating system, which prompted the not so unrealistic prediction that Windows 7 would hit the 300 million sold licenses mark by the end of the year. And yet, although more than 1 million PCs are being sold each day, the perspective that the post-PC era is nigh emerged earlier this month.

“The transformation of PC to new form factors like the tablet is going to make some people uneasy because the PC has taken us a long way,” noted Apple CEO Steve Jobs at the D8 conference, comparing PCs with trucks for an agrarian world. “The PC is brilliant […] and we like to talk about the post-PC era, but it’s uncomfortable.”

Time will tell whether Jobs was a true visionary when he predicted that the post-PC era was nigh, or whether he was just putting a marketing spin on the PC vs. tablets perspective. Of course, when professing the imminent death of the PC as we know it, Jobs is also telling Apple customers that Macs are a thing of the past. Running Intel processors and NVIDIA GPUs, Mac machines are just as PC as any computer with Windows preinstalled from an OEM.

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s Chief Executive Officer, contradicted Jobs, “Windows machines will not be trucks,” he stated. Jobs had argued that “When we were an agrarian nation, all cars were trucks because that’s what you needed on the farms. But as people moved more towards urban centers, people started to get into cars. I think PCs are going to be like trucks. Less people will need them.”

“Nothing people do on a PC is going to get less relevant tomorrow,” Ballmer predicted. “There will exist a general-purpose device to do everything you want. The PC as we know it will continue to morph form factors. The real question is what you do with it.”

The “immediate” future

According to statistics from Gartner, worldwide PC shipments will grow by 22% in 2010, with the industry selling 376.6 million units this year alone. “PC demand in the consumer segment continues to strengthen even though the global economy remains uncertain. Consumers are now viewing PCs as necessities rather than luxury items,” stated Ranjit Atwal, principal research analyst at Gartner at the end of May 2010. “In the downturn, PCs remained the electronic device of choice on which to spend household income in mature markets, and we do not expect this to change either in 2010 or beyond.”

Jobs obviously wants more and more users to stop running PCs and buy a tablet, iPads for example. However, having shipped some 2 million iPads, Apple is in no position to even think that is anything other than a mosquito to the behemoth PC market, disruptive as it might be, but delivering little actual impact.

“Media tablets will not impact the mini-notebook segment this year,” added Raphael Vasquez, research analyst at Gartner. “However, media tablets, such as the iPad and similar devices, will significantly detract from mini-notebook shipments in 2013 and onward, when we expect their prices to be lower and, more importantly, their functionality to be more similar to mini-notebooks.”

What’s interesting is the last part of Vasquez’s statement, that about the evolution of tablets into actual PCs. And why not? If you think about it for just one second, you realize that not only has this transition happened before, but it is continuing to take place all the way around us.

Recently, Intel CEO Paul Otellini noted that by 2014, the worldwide shipments of PCs would explode to over 700 million units annually, from the 380 million in 2010. At least for the first half of the coming decade, PCs are not only going anywhere, but are going to get a stronger and stronger presence on the market.

What if it’s actually the other way around?

What if the so called post-PC era would actually involve more of the same PCs? I often get questions about my decision to pay “too much” money for the latest smartphone from mobile phone users. Surely it must have happened to other Pctipsbox readers as well, especially if they have friends using their mobile phones as, well, just as phones. My first mobile phone was Alcatel One Touch Easy DB, which, by today’s standards, is an antiquity, the latest, HTC Hero, is more powerful than my first PC.

To me, my HTC Hero is a small computer. HTC Evo 4G, for example, features a 1 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, 1GB ROM and 512MB RAM, and Qualcomm is right on track to going as high as 1.5 GHz with their upcoming processors. I don’t know how many of you remember that the system requirements for Windows XP involve just a “Pentium 233-megahertz (MHz) processor or faster (300 MHz is recommended) and at least 64 megabytes (MB) of RAM (128 MB is recommended),” according to Microsoft.

And let’s take the example of netbooks. When netbooks, or ultra-low cost PCs as Microsoft likes to call them, first came out, they were capable only of running Windows XP in addition to various distributions of Linux, but certainly not Windows Vista. Whereas netbooks were initially marketed as specialized devices designed to let users surf the web but not much more beyond that, the current units are perfectly capable of running Windows 7 and delivering the full experience of a PC. NPD’s Retail Tracking Service reveals that in April 2010, no less than 81% of netbook units sold in US via the retail channel had Windows 7 pre-installed.

So what if it’s actually the other way around. PCs are not going anywhere and not transforming into computing relics, but instead new form factors evolve to become PCs or the equivalent of PCs. Tell you what, I’m looking forward to the first iPad that will run Windows just as other Macs do today.

What makes a PC?

The way I see it, all non-PC devices are slowly evolving into PCs. Just looking at Apple’s own Mac products, it’s clear that all device roads lead to the PC, and it simply can’t be any clearer with the Macs now even running Windows. To put it simply, Bill Gates’ original vision of a computer on every desk in every home is no longer sufficient to satisfy consumers. People need a PC in all aspects of their life. This automatically implies that PCs will take countless sizes and shapes in different form factors in order to be tailored to the customer’s needs. It doesn’t take any real vision to predict this, as the PC industry is one of the aspects of life where evolution is extremely palpable and evident from one year to the next. Just think of Moore’s law.

And in the end, what makes a PC? By 2000’s standards, today’s smartphones could very well be considered more of a computer and less of a phone. What will be the standard in 2020? Super-tablets? Netbooks on steroids? Perhaps. But it is clear that as technology moves forward, consumers require more and more out of their devices. And when specialized form factors are not really the answer, it will be multi-purpose computing coming to the rescue.

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