Desktops are not extinct

Posted Mar 8, 2012
Last Updated Mar 8, 2012

First you heard it when laptops started becoming affordable to the masses: the desktop is dead. That prediction has come and gone just like the crackpots saying the world is at an end. It didn't take long for consumers to realize that a laptop isn't as powerful as a desktop, isn't easy to upgrade, is easier stolen, broken and forgotten in the cab than the desktop.

Now there is a new generation of technology that has produced the same kinds of predictions—smart phones and tablets. This time around, the threat may be a little more consequential... but in the end I believe that it is equally incorrect.

More and more of the traffic on the internet is done on phones and tablets than ever before. These new mobile devices have revolutionized the way modern society interacts—the resources of the internet are now immediately available to giant segments of our society. And it is true that, more and more, there are everyday computing tasks that many of us do almost exclusively on our phones: email, messaging, getting directions, etc.

As it is that mobile devices are becoming more ubiquitous and many tasks are moving to these devices, there is more surface credibility to the idea that the desktop is dead. And while I am sure that for many people, mobile devices are going to become the hub of their computer activity, I do not feel that this means the end of desktops. My guess is that the desktop fits a role that will not go away... though it will obviously change in many sectors in society.

Despite mobile devices, despite the emergence of "the cloud”, there are activities that desktops excel at: anything that benefits from power and size. All fields that benefit from powerful computers are going to favor desktops over mobile devices. Unless there is a complete revolution in technology to marginalize the need for powerful devices in rendering complex graphical and physical simulations, desktops are always going to be better for production than mobile devices.

I once read someone asking in a forum if they could install 3ds Max onto a tablet. Aside from the fact that it was unable to be installed on that device, the user exposed a certain sense of naivety about productivity on mobile devices. Even if you could install it, you would run into huge problems with slow computing; my guess is a successful installation would result in: 1) immediate joy at the apparent opportunity to use the software anywhere; 2) shortly, a sense of dis-satisfaction with such small display; 3) more dis-satisfaction and eventual frustration at the slowness of viewport performance; 4) surprise with reduced battery life due to the processor-intensive calculations; 5) abandonment of the whole process.

In terms of graphic design (and my personal interest 3D design), tablet devices are more suited for reading documentation about design than actually using for design. I'm not saying you cannot do design on a tablet... but it's not going to be a professional's first choice.

Again, if there is a complete revolution in graphics technology, this may change. But my guess is that this is probably not going to change anytime soon. Looking to nature, there is probably a related reason that creatures that rely on visual interpretations of the world have very large, complex and expensive brain systems devoted to visual processing.

While it may be true that the age of consumer desktops may have taken a turn for the negative (because consumers are giving some of their focus on the new consumer tablets and smart phones), I do not view the age of the desktop as over. All creatives, producers and developers are going to continue to want (and need) the biggest, fastest things there are.

In a broader audience, the age of the desktop is also not going to end anytime soon. PC games are big business. And while many titles are being produced for mobile devices, my guess is that all the serious gamers are still going to follow the same logic as listed for the designers: more powerful computers mean better graphics and performance; and for the gaming world, the fact that desktops are easily upgraded means a lot—you can make your device run better by upgrading a video card, etc. You can't do that with today's tablets.

I'm not saying that mobile devices are bad; I'm also not arguing that you shouldn't buy or use them. What I'm arguing is that you shouldn't necessarily believe the prophets about the end of the desktop. If those prophets are correct, I would be greatly saddened because it would mean that the revolution of the computer and internet would be replaced by a world where we are all only insignificant nodes in the corporate cloud; computers would no longer be devices for creating, but limited—like mini TVs that we carry around at all times—so that we cannot do so much as we used to do; instead, the focus would be consuming the polished and expertly wrapped advertisements that are the hallmark of mainstream and corporate media.


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May 26, 2012

I agree whole heatedly. Tablets and smart-phones are great for lite computing but there is so much they cannot do and may never be able to do. Not only do desktops have more power and larger displays but they also have more versatile input devices and better ergonomics. Typing on a keyboard is faster and more comfortable and allows one to more easily switch to special characters and numbers. It is also more accurate, as is pointing with a mouse, though mobile power users may disagree. Furthermore you do not have to control the orientation of the display nor do you block the display with your fingers as you access the device. Mobile device inputs also require us to awkwardly balance the device in the webbing between thumb and forefinger as just a few fingers dance across the screen, a painful proposition if the device is not perfectly sized for one's hand and, even worse, causing the screen to inevitably change position.

Not to mention the ability with a desktop to work in multiple applications at once much more smoothly, however that is perhaps a software issue. Still, the ability to switch applications and paste data between them with nothing but a few keystrokes while your wrists rest comfortably on the desk is something that I do not see tablets ever able to match, at least if they are trying to emulate desktop computing tasks and methods while the user is not at a desk or table.

Shawn Olson

May 27, 2012

Well put!

I'm off in Montana at the moment. And I installed a mini 3D design app called Sketcher 3D onto my Galaxy Nexus . I figured it would occupy my some on my flight. No... I gave it up after 5 minutes and watched Cowboys and Aliens instead. It was just so tedius and limited.

I do have Sketchbook Mobile which is kind of cool. But again, all I can imagine myself doing on it is sketching out basic ideas that I later fully flesh out on my desktop.

Andrew Penry

Mar 9, 2012

I read this on my phone. I still agree, though.

Shawn Olson

Mar 10, 2012


And I read your comment on a phone!

My Blackberry started acting up the last couple of weeks and got really bad on Firday. So I went in and got a Galaxy Nexus. Pretty cool device.
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