Recent numbers for the PC industry are dismal, with a 13.9 percent decrease in shipments for the first quarter of this year, according to IDC. The research firm said the contraction marked "the worst quarter since IDC began tracking the PC market quarterly in 1994." Even Apple -- who's MacBook Pro and MacBook Air get rave reviews, suffered a 7.5 percent decline in shipments, partially because of cannibalization from its own iPad.
Tablet sales, according to Gartner, were up 9 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to 2012.
Before I get into my defense of traditional desktop and notebook PCs, I need to point out that tablets -- and to a certain extent smartphones -- actually are PCs. To say a tablet isn't a PC would be like saying a laptop isn't a PC just because it looks and works a bit differently than a desktop. And the definition of PC certainly doesn't require that it run a certain operating system. Whether it uses Apple's iOS, Google's Android or some variant of Microsoft Windows, a tablet is a PC. And one reason for their popularity is that they can do pretty much the same tasks as a PC, plus they're also great for consuming content.
Having said that, I still think there is a future for notebooks and even desktop PCs. I have plenty of uses for tablets, but even though I own an iPad mini and an Android tablet, I started this column from my desktop PC at home and finished it using my MacBook Air at a coffee shop.
I appreciate a good keyboard and the tried-and-true software that runs on Windows and OS X. It's not just my main programs like Microsoft Office that I like, but also lots of little utilities, such as the ones that let me redefine certain keys, or allow me to capture and easily edit portions of the screen. I know there are tablet apps that do some of these same things, and eventually I may shift more of my work to tablets, but I find these apps convenient and even comforting.
There is also the issue of storage. I know that the cloud is an "infinite disk drive," but there are still advantages to having immediate access to more than a terabyte of data, as I do on my desktop PC. And speaking of my desktop PC, it also has two large screens that make it easy for me to work on several projects at once and keep several Web pages close at hand. Try doing that on an iPad. Although I know some people who are pretty good at "typing on glass," I'm still a lot faster and make far fewer mistakes when using a traditional keyboard.
It's my hope that the PC industry continues to evolve and innovate while also continuing to support desktop and notebook form factors and operating systems like Windows and Mac OS that are open (unlike iOS, you don't need Apple's permission to distribute Mac software) and that support all sorts of hardware and software add-ons to allow users to enhance and customize their systems.
In its research report, IDC said that Windows 8 sales haven't turned the industry around, but I like using Windows 8 on a touch-screen notebook PC even though I think it makes very little sense on most desktop machines, especially if they don't have a touch screen. I hope Apple adds touch to future MacBooks, but I don't want them to abandon OS X in favor of iOS. And I think it was a mistake for Microsoft to change the default interface on Windows 8, though users can change it back via third-party apps. It was dumb for Microsoft to remove the Start menu, but that, too, can be resurrected with through free apps.
In 2010, shortly after the introduction of the first iPad, Steve Jobs told The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher on stage at the All Things Digital tech conference that "PCs are going to be like trucks." He added that they are still going to be around, but only a small percentage of people will need them. He might have been right, but what he didn't point out is that trucks are incredibly popular. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that "light-duty trucks" account for about half of the new passenger car sales," and that doesn't include all those heavy-duty trucks on the road.
Just as many ranchers, contractors and others who rely on trucks also have personal cars, I'm happy to use my tablet to read, watch video and do Web surfing and email reading. But when it comes to getting work done, I need to sit behind the keyboard of my big-rig desktop or at least "pickup" (pun intended) my little notebook.
Contact Larry Magid at email@example.com. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.