Tax on the Brain

“The PC is over. It will linger, but increasingly as a relic.”

Those are words from from MG Siegler, a noted fan of Apple products, writer and investor.

When I come across anyone predicting the demise of the PC I immediately take interest because I make my living helping people select custom computers. Many of these people make their living using professional software tools such as Adobe Photoshop or Premiere. The computer power they require can’t be found on a tablet or smartphone or even a laptop on many occasions.

I would guess that many from this group are longtime PC users and laugh at the idea of PCs becoming relics. Not a week goes by where someone tells me the view tablets like the iPad as “toys” and can’t imagine being productive on them. They are viewed in same light as the Nintendo DS: fun toys, but useless when it comes to serious work.

We have Windows PCs, iPads, iPhones and three iPod Touch in our home. This past Christmas we finally got a big screen TV that’s hooked up to DirecTV, a Nintendo Wii and the Xbox 360.

Watching how my children use each of these devices has been interesting and not what I would have predicted.

The PC is used to play Roblox, which is a simple (and goofy) Flashed based game. Occasionally Lincoln will watch a YouTube video or Luca will edit a paper for school on the PC. To them, the PC is a place where I do my work. It’s for old people who have to use these primitive input devices called a keyboard and mouse. It’s big and clunky, and requires frequent patches and reboots. In short, it’s a hassle.

The TV is used to consume shows they watch together like So You Think You Can Dance. They seldom watch anything live. To them, TV is what’s on Netflix or recorded to the DVR. They idea of having to sit through commercials is foreign to them.

For everything else, they default to their iPod Touch. It’s the only device they own and don’t have to share with anyone else. They can select which apps are on it as well as customize the screen the way they want. They use the iPod Touch to play games, send texts, watch movies, and stream Netflix. It’s what they turn to first. I’m still surprised when I see one of them curled up on the couch in front of a turned off TV watching Spongebob through Netflix on the iPod Touch.

And yet I do the same thing now with my iPad. I watched all five season of the Wire on my iPad because I could do so from bed. I often sit on the couch and watch ESPN highlights when I could be watching them on a 52-inch screen. But when I’d have to locate three remotes and then fuss with each of them. In that same time I can watch the highlight on my iPad.

When I wanted to watch HBO on my computer I had to download a bunch of plugins that weren’t initially compatible with my browser. But first I had to lookup the model number of my video card to make sure it was on the “approved list” because I guess someone is worried I possess the skills to pirate Game of Thrones. Given the number of technical hoops I had to jump through, I’m sure many people would just give up. Even once I had the plugins installed, I would get an error telling me my graphics card wasn’t compatible with their service.

The same thing happened when I my PC upgraded to Silverlight which is required to stream Netflix on the PC. Searching for a solution online brought up many people having the same problem. Some suggested I revert back to an older version of Silverlight while others recommended making a few changes to the registry. Two weeks later, a user on a technical forum suggested I run a command from the command line that magically fixed it.

At least until the next Silverlight upgrade.

The fact is PCs are still incredibly complex. They require far too many updates. They are not easy to backup, and many of the backup services are difficult to use. Have you installed a PC game lately? Get ready to spend a few hours making everything work right. The hoops the gamer must jump through would be inconceivable to many who play those same games on the Xbox or Playstation. The patience required is still enormous.

I grew up using a PC. It’s all I had. It’s all I knew for most of my computing life. I’m willing to put up with the many quirks and idiosyncrasies that try my patience. I know my way around the registry, and have torched so many computers that I got accustomed to making them work again by breaking them open and futzing around with them for hours. 

My kids will grow up using devices that don’t require that level of dedication and know-how. Hand an iPad to a child and watch them master it in just minutes. It’s simple and intuitive. Compare that to Windows 8 which is best described as a “tax on the brain”.

Many kids in elementary school have no need for a PC. They will have experienced the instant-on, no fuss nature of the smartphone or tablet. Try telling them they can’t type on a small screen and watch them laugh. Many of them can type more words per minute on their tiny screens that you can type on your full-sized keyboard. Don’t tell them they need a PC to edit photos or video either. The tools are already there in the app stores. Tell them about Patch Tuesday and watch them double over in laughter.

For the time being, PC sales remain strong as least at my employer. We don’t sell sub $1000 PCs which have been decimated by the rise of the iPad. We’ll soon witness a wave of new tablets running Windows 8. We still sell a lot of PCs to people who just need a reliable platform to browse the web, write emails, and edit the occasional Office document. If you’re like me and you’re used to doing those activities on a PC, you’ll probably stick with the PC for a while and maybe forever.

But for kids who grow up using smartphones and tablets to accomplish those same tasks, only time will tell if they even consider a traditional PC.  Most of the killer apps are on mobile devices. When’s the last time someone told you to check out a cool program for the PC?

Time will tell, but I don’t believe my children will have a need for a PC in same way I did. I’d say the odds are against it.