Is the PC Dead? Looking Back on Two Decades of Debate

Renowned futurist Paul Saffo and veteran tech journalist John Dodge ponder past predictions about the death of the PC.

Futurist Paul Saffo may have been the first to proclaim the PC dead back in 1991. Later that decade PC Week editor John Dodge refuted Saffo’s position, claiming the PC was not dead, but that it “will be with us a long time.” Ironically, these two were on the front lines of a more than two-decade-long debate over the life and death of the PC that continues to this day amid the rapid rise of tablets and smartphones and slowing growth for traditional PCs. When contacted recently, both offered interesting perspectives on the cycles they’ve observed including the one the PC industry finds itself in today.

Futurist Paul Saffo 1st to pronounce PC Dead

"It's not just about the hardware being dead anymore. This is about changing the whole paradigm, and I'm not optimistic about what the new order is," said futurist Paul Saffo.

In a New York Times op-ed published Oct. 13, 1991, Saffo declared that “today’s personal computers are headed for technological oblivion because they are fundamentally standalone devices designed to accommodate a wide range of tasks at the expense of doing any one particularly well. PCs will still be around, but relegated to an obscurity similar to that reserved for typewriters today.”

Saffo, who teaches at Stanford University and is co-founder and managing director of Discern, a San Francisco-based analytics firm, claims his original remark was rooted in his opinion that PCs “didn’t make sense for ordinary users.” He said, “In 1991 PCs seemed to be at right angles from what most users would want to do. It took a while for the industry to make devices that fit the general user.”

Today, Saffo has refined his position somewhat as he has seen the PC evolve — not that he still doesn’t think the PC is fading. “I’d say the same thing but I’d qualify it. I’d say the PC is dead but, but we’re going to be stuck with its corpse a lot longer than we want.”

Remarkably, Saffo also says the era of “personal” may be over, too. “The era of personal, locally controlled information was brief,” he said. “Today, for instance, information you post on Facebook and the books you read on Kindle are not owned by you. Facebook can delete your account and Amazon can remove the books you’re reading. It’s not just about the hardware being dead anymore. This is about changing the whole paradigm, and I’m not optimistic about what the new order is.”

A Different Perspective

In the late 1990s PCs and Internet use were growing rapidly, and John Dodge was editor of PC Week, a thick magazine bulging with advertising pages. In 1999, Dodge wrote that the PC “will be with us a long time.” His view ran counter not only to Saffo’s, but also to Larry Ellison, co-founder and CEO of Oracle, who was espousing a new era of so-called network computers. Just four years earlier, in 1995, Ellison had called the PC a “ridiculous device” that had become obsolete and would soon be replaced by simple diskless terminals that relied on the network and servers for information processing.

John Dodge former PC Week editor refuted claims PC Dead

"The big question mark is whether the PC remains a Windows platform," said John Dodge, Enterprise CIO Forum community manager and former PC Week editor.

At the time, Dodge dismissed the stance that Saffo, Ellison and others were taking by writing in his column, “I think the discussion of whether the PC is dead, is dead.”

Dodge, who is now community manager of Enterprise CIO Forum, recently looked back on that PC Week column and believes that his prediction has largely held up.

“The PC was at its peak then and probably still had 10 years of peaking to do,” he said. “Now, of course, things are leveling off. There are many more form factors. The tablet is very, very popular, obviously. Screen interfaces are very easy to use. But people still use keyboards … there’s nothing like a good keyboard.”

Dodge, who uses a Mac as well as a tablet today, certainly recognizes the decline, but doesn’t think it’s a simple equation.

“We’ve seen a slight decline in PC sales, but it isn’t like all of a sudden the bottom is going to fall out,” he said. “They’re still very price-competitive, they’re very functional, they’re very business-oriented. The PC will be with us for a number of years more, there’s no doubt about that.”

While he believes the traditional PC will eventually be replaced, Dodge thinks it will happen slowly and decries the proclamations that he says are often made to get attention.

“Eventually it will get replaced, but I think it will be slow descent,” he said. “It’s not like people en masse will be giving up their PCs. If you take that Paul Saffo statement from the early ’90s … he’s a futurist. It’s his job to look into the future. Sometimes such proclamations are made to get attention. I see research firms do it all the time. They try to coin new phrases. They say ‘This is dead,’ ‘Everyone’s moving into the cloud’ — it’s like a zero-sum game. It’s like, ‘Enterprise IT is all of a sudden going to drop this platform in favor of this platform,’ and it never happens that way. Migrations tend to be slow, they tend to be piecemeal and they tend to be thought out.”

As for the future, Dodge still sees a lot of evolution happening, but ultimately believes PCs will “morph” into something else. In the meantime, PCs aren’t going away, he says, but he also thinks it won’t be a “Windows only” world for PCs going forward.

“The PC, if you look at Windows 8, is evolving,” Dodge said. “You can have a touchscreen and you can have a keyboard. You can have the best of both worlds in theory. I’m not necessarily sure that’s what people want. The big question mark is whether the PC remains a Windows platform. Does it have to be based on the Windows platform? I think it’s going to morph into something else. You will hardly notice the transition because it will take place over so many years. I don’t think something all of a sudden is going to come along and knock off the PC sort of as we know it. I don’t think you wake up one morning and there’s no more PC.

“I think people are going to buy PCs, they’re going to buy tablets and they’re going to buy smartphones. They all have different purposes and they’re all affordable.”

Is the PC Dead? 2 Decades of PC Obituaries

Futurist Paul Saffo may have been the first to proclaim the PC dead, but he wasn't alone. Over more than two decades, as networked devices, mobile devices and most recently tablets have come to market, a host of industry figures and observers have continued to predict the death of the PC. --Click to view larger--

Is the PC Dead? Looking Back on Two Decades of Debate

Renowned futurist Paul Saffo and veteran tech journalist John Dodge ponder past predictions about the death of the PC.

Futurist Paul Saffo may have been the first to proclaim the PC dead back in 1991. Later that decade PC Week editor John Dodge refuted Saffo’s position, claiming the PC was not dead, but that it “will be with us a long time.” Ironically, these two were on the front lines of a more than two-decade-long debate over the life and death of the PC that continues to this day amid the rapid rise of tablets and smartphones and slowing growth for traditional PCs. When contacted recently, both offered interesting perspectives on the cycles they’ve observed including the one the PC industry finds itself in today.

Futurist Paul Saffo 1st to pronounce PC Dead

"It's not just about the hardware being dead anymore. This is about changing the whole paradigm, and I'm not optimistic about what the new order is," said futurist Paul Saffo.

In a New York Times op-ed published Oct. 13, 1991, Saffo declared that “today’s personal computers are headed for technological oblivion because they are fundamentally standalone devices designed to accommodate a wide range of tasks at the expense of doing any one particularly well. PCs will still be around, but relegated to an obscurity similar to that reserved for typewriters today.”

Saffo, who teaches at Stanford University and is co-founder and managing director of Discern, a San Francisco-based analytics firm, claims his original remark was rooted in his opinion that PCs “didn’t make sense for ordinary users.” He said, “In 1991 PCs seemed to be at right angles from what most users would want to do. It took a while for the industry to make devices that fit the general user.”

Today, Saffo has refined his position somewhat as he has seen the PC evolve — not that he still doesn’t think the PC is fading. “I’d say the same thing but I’d qualify it. I’d say the PC is dead but, but we’re going to be stuck with its corpse a lot longer than we want.”

Remarkably, Saffo also says the era of “personal” may be over, too. “The era of personal, locally controlled information was brief,” he said. “Today, for instance, information you post on Facebook and the books you read on Kindle are not owned by you. Facebook can delete your account and Amazon can remove the books you’re reading. It’s not just about the hardware being dead anymore. This is about changing the whole paradigm, and I’m not optimistic about what the new order is.”

A Different Perspective

In the late 1990s PCs and Internet use were growing rapidly, and John Dodge was editor of PC Week, a thick magazine bulging with advertising pages. In 1999, Dodge wrote that the PC “will be with us a long time.” His view ran counter not only to Saffo’s, but also to Larry Ellison, co-founder and CEO of Oracle, who was espousing a new era of so-called network computers. Just four years earlier, in 1995, Ellison had called the PC a “ridiculous device” that had become obsolete and would soon be replaced by simple diskless terminals that relied on the network and servers for information processing.

John Dodge former PC Week editor refuted claims PC Dead

"The big question mark is whether the PC remains a Windows platform," said John Dodge, Enterprise CIO Forum community manager and former PC Week editor.

At the time, Dodge dismissed the stance that Saffo, Ellison and others were taking by writing in his column, “I think the discussion of whether the PC is dead, is dead.”

Dodge, who is now community manager of Enterprise CIO Forum, recently looked back on that PC Week column and believes that his prediction has largely held up.

“The PC was at its peak then and probably still had 10 years of peaking to do,” he said. “Now, of course, things are leveling off. There are many more form factors. The tablet is very, very popular, obviously. Screen interfaces are very easy to use. But people still use keyboards … there’s nothing like a good keyboard.”

Dodge, who uses a Mac as well as a tablet today, certainly recognizes the decline, but doesn’t think it’s a simple equation.

“We’ve seen a slight decline in PC sales, but it isn’t like all of a sudden the bottom is going to fall out,” he said. “They’re still very price-competitive, they’re very functional, they’re very business-oriented. The PC will be with us for a number of years more, there’s no doubt about that.”

While he believes the traditional PC will eventually be replaced, Dodge thinks it will happen slowly and decries the proclamations that he says are often made to get attention.

“Eventually it will get replaced, but I think it will be slow descent,” he said. “It’s not like people en masse will be giving up their PCs. If you take that Paul Saffo statement from the early ’90s … he’s a futurist. It’s his job to look into the future. Sometimes such proclamations are made to get attention. I see research firms do it all the time. They try to coin new phrases. They say ‘This is dead,’ ‘Everyone’s moving into the cloud’ — it’s like a zero-sum game. It’s like, ‘Enterprise IT is all of a sudden going to drop this platform in favor of this platform,’ and it never happens that way. Migrations tend to be slow, they tend to be piecemeal and they tend to be thought out.”

As for the future, Dodge still sees a lot of evolution happening, but ultimately believes PCs will “morph” into something else. In the meantime, PCs aren’t going away, he says, but he also thinks it won’t be a “Windows only” world for PCs going forward.

“The PC, if you look at Windows 8, is evolving,” Dodge said. “You can have a touchscreen and you can have a keyboard. You can have the best of both worlds in theory. I’m not necessarily sure that’s what people want. The big question mark is whether the PC remains a Windows platform. Does it have to be based on the Windows platform? I think it’s going to morph into something else. You will hardly notice the transition because it will take place over so many years. I don’t think something all of a sudden is going to come along and knock off the PC sort of as we know it. I don’t think you wake up one morning and there’s no more PC.

“I think people are going to buy PCs, they’re going to buy tablets and they’re going to buy smartphones. They all have different purposes and they’re all affordable.”

Is the PC Dead? 2 Decades of PC Obituaries

Futurist Paul Saffo may have been the first to proclaim the PC dead, but he wasn't alone. Over more than two decades, as networked devices, mobile devices and most recently tablets have come to market, a host of industry figures and observers have continued to predict the death of the PC. --Click to view larger--