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Bill Bennett

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Future of personal computing: It isn’t a Windows laptop

Apple iPad Pro

Microsoft understands where personal computing is heading. So does Apple.

Only a handful of today’s computers matter1. None are Windows laptops. None are desktops.

They are:

Everything else is legacy computing, a clever clone of one of the above or specialist kit for  power users2.

Evolution

All three3 represent evolutionary steps from the old PC model. They also represent a move from local processing towards a cloud, web and services model.

This last point is essential. The productivity bottleneck in old-style personal computing was running out of the headroom needed to run many local apps at the same time.

When, say, a new version of Microsoft Office appeared, there was a worry that existing hardware couldn’t carry the extra load.

Everyday users don’t care about those things any more.

Browser is king

Today a lot of apps run in the browser. Most apps are lightweight compared to the old behemoths. And, I’m thinking here of iOS, they can stay live in the background without chewing resources.

We use computers so different today that the old resource requirements don’t make sense. They haven’t been essential since the first netbooks arrived more than a decade ago.

Microsoft and Apple recognise this. Their response has been to pare back the personal computer to its essentials. Add a great display, long battery life and, in most cases, touch.

Most people in most jobs can achieve everything they need on one of these three computers. Before you write to tell me this is nonsense, ask yourself if your arguments are matters that concern mainstream users.

Hurdles

There are still hurdles. All these machines are expensive compared to mainstream PCs. Not everyone can afford the premium prices they command. I get that.

You might argue some of the devices I list are underpowered. Well, maybe, but we’re talking mainstream computing here. It’s been a generation since computers struggled to deliver the power I need for writing, publishing and trimming photos to size.

Some say “you can’t do real work” on these devices. That maybe true for some given value of real work, but be realistic about what other people do on their computers.

Most of the critics can’t get their head around the idea that for most people Microsoft Word is the most sophisticated app in their locker.

I’ve spent weeks at a time using each of a Surface Pro 4, 2015 MacBook and iPad Pro as my only computer. In each case there are either a few, minor things I can’t do or that involve an uncomfortable compromise.

For the most part these problems were down to my unwillingness to change old habits. None of these were deal breakers. And I’m old. I’ve been using personal computers for 36 years. Young people will see these devices in a different light. Which is just as well. After all, they are going to live with the future of personal computing longer than I will.


  1. We’re talking here about mainstream users. If you’re a gamer, a developer or a hard core geek these tools may not meet your needs, you are not typical.
  2. In theory PC makers like Lenovo, HP and Dell all have the ability to make decent Surface or Surface Book clones.
  3. Four if you think the Surface Book is distinct from the Surface Pro.

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9 thoughts on “Future of personal computing: It isn’t a Windows laptop

  1. Arguably, the Chromebook should be on your list. I’m a power user (photography, video editing, VMs for other OSs I’m playing with) so I’m not your mainstream. However, my wife is and she loves her Chromebook. If not for lack of integration with the Apple IOS ecosystem, she would NEVER touch another computer. On the other hand, if the iPad was easier to balance on her lap (with a hinged keyboard), she would probably use nothing but the iPad.

    1. Agree. I’m writing a follow-up post about the Chromebook. I left it out of this story because it represents yet another class of device and would have confused, but not contradicted, my argument.

  2. While I completely agree with you re. the cloud and paring back/simplifying the experience, I think Chromebooks are the better example of this.

    The I7 Surface and iPad Pro are certainly not under-powered (as Tim Cook was at pains to point out during the launch) and Surface & Macbook both run the same operating systems and programs as the latest traditional laptops. I think there is a different, more powerful common thread running through these devices. They represent an attempt to bring the convenience and ease of use of mobile devices to the laptop form. They are all ultra-portable, have long battery life and provide immediate no-hassle use via instant-on and touch (Macbook excepted).

    So agree traditional laptops are getting squeezed between these devices and chromebooks, but from two different (although related) paradigms… Chromebooks from the price/simplicity end and these ultra-portables from the convenience/always with you end.

    1. I lost my laptop on a train while abroad, it took 2 weeks to get it back and I used only my iPad in between. It was liberating and I learned just how powerful the iPad really was and changed the way I work.

  3. Forget Surface, Lumia and Windows. Today’s Microsoft is all about cloud and subscriptions.
    Surface Pro tablets did well. Microsoft has strong orders for the Surface Book. Yet the big story is elsewhere. Investors are more interested in the Microsoft cloud progress: Azure grew 140 percent last year.
    Office 365 subscriptions continue to surge. The interesting thing here is that Office 365 has broken out of the Windows market. The Android and iOS apps are a huge success and they, in turn, generate subscription revenue.
    Service the main game
    Microsoft’s quarterly financial result highlights success with services sitting on top of Azure and Windows.
    Reaction to the result was upbeat given stalling phone sales and traditional PC sales in a tail spin. Microsoft now only accounts for one percent of the global phone market. PC sales are down ten percent on last year.
    Microsoft has shown a remarkable ability to reinvent its business to cope with change. Looking back Satya Nadella’s appointment and his focus on a Microsoft cloud looks like a masterstroke. The only fly in the oinment is falling margins. That’s going to mean cultural changes throughout the business.

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