Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Death Of The PC

The Death Of The PC As We Know It

Times are changing. Our society isn't exactly sure what the outcome will be, but the writing is on the wall. It has been recently announced that the PC is experiencing the longest decline in sales since… well, ever.

 Let’s zoom in on that last bit shall we... 
Ouch... Things didn't improve for very long after 2011.

Our smartphones and tablets are taking over. You know they’re powerful, but HOW powerful exactly? The results may shock you! Consider this:

A high end 2013 smartphone has 3.35 times the performance* of a 2007 Desktop PC CPU, 1.5 times the performance of a 2011 Desktop PC CPU and can manage 12.5% more performance than an Xbox 360. Umm.. WHAT?! Most people don’t  even realise that there is a mobile ‘revolution’ happening right under our noses. More exact details are in the main article.

*performance as a measure of floating instructions per second.

Now that I’ve got your attention...
In order to understand the grand scale of this ‘revolution’, let’s take a look back. The computer is possibly man’s greatest invention, after the ability to control the electrical current.
Here’s a brief but rather interesting overview of the origins of the computer and its history The computer’s exact time of arrival into this world depends on your own definition but it goes something like this:


1812 | Charles Babbage had a vision for a general-purpose machine. The idea came to light when he notice a vast number of mistakes in a table of logarithms. Babbage realised that the work could be done by a machine much fast and more reliably than an any human.

1930| Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) created a machine that could solve differential equations. A few years passed and scientists realised they could exploit the binary number system for use in electrical devices.

1938 | A German mathematician, Konrad Zuse, invents the "Z1". It had the makings of a modern computer, including a processor unit, memory and a binary number system in its operation.

1943 | America steps in with a 5 tonne calculator at Harvard University that caught the eye of International Business Machines (IBM).
Later that year, the famous 'Colossus' computer was born. It was the first programmable computer and arguably helped the Allies win WWII via its ability to decipher enemy codes. It was a fatty though, at about 1 tonne. It had the awesome processing power of 1500 vacuum tubes.

1951 | The Universal Automatic Computer (UNIVAC) becomes the worlds first commercial computer. One of its first tasks was to predict the 1952 U.S presidential election outcome.

   Above: Colossus computer running Battle Field 4



The Apollo 11 guidance computer, that helped take Man to the moon, did so with just 2kb of memory and 32kb of storage, with an incredible CPU speed of 1.024MHZ. Even though it was a powerhouse for its day, let’s put this into context.

In 2013, a mobile phone can have not one, but four CPU’s clocked at 2.3 GHZ (Snapdragon 800). That’s 2,246x times faster than the Apollo 11 guidance computer (not including multitasking which was done manually in 1969). Let’s keep going. Modern phones can have up to 3 GB of RAM (that’s 1,572,864x times as much!) with 64GB of storage expandable up to a possible 96GB (that’s 3,146,875x times as much!!)  Think about the next time you see someone Google “kitty cat memes” on their phone!

Also in the 1960’s, one man was about 25 years ahead of his time. His name was Douglas C. Engelbart. On December 9th, 1968 in San Francisco, the world was about to witness one of the greatest visionaries of all time. While hippies were frolicking outside on Haight-Ashbury, Engelbart gave a tech demo dubbed “The Mother Of All Demos”. It featured word editing, hyperlinks, video conferencing, text and graphics, a mouse… It really was just amazing for its time. Sadly Douglas Engelbart passed away on July 2nd. Let his work live on...


A great revolution is set in motion by the introduction of the Intel 4004 chip in 1971 and the computer makes its way into our homes. At the spearhead of this movement was the Apple II. Apple would have forever been a fruit if it wasn’t for a little software package called VisiCalc. It turned the cooperate industry on its head, no longer was the PC just for hobbyists but it was now a real business tool. When accountants saw VisiCalc, they literally broke down and cried. Their lives were changed because all of a sudden, what previously took them countless hours of painstaking work could now be done in seconds. The computer had become personal.
Above: Behold. VisiCalc.
Above: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak having some classic laughs with an apple II



It’s all about being the fastest and the most powerful. Primitive graphics and user interfaces first start showing up in 1981.You no longer had to be scared of the computer anymore since the mouse and pointer system made it child’s play. Gone were the days of typing instructions on a green screen. “You don’t even need to know how to program to use one” well that’s the world Steve Jobs wanted anyway. IBM and the big corporate side didn’t see the light however, they just dismissed the format as “cute”. Meanwhile, in the home, the most dominant computer of the 80’s was the Commodore 64. Strangely enough, the British had a huge computer market compared to today. In the 80’s. In 1981, the British company Acorn Computers conceived the ARM chipset. Boom. Today ARM chips power 98% of mobile devices!

Above: Bill Cosby likes the Commodore 64, it must be good.

Above: Some cool cat's playing with a Commodore PET in 1983.


By the 90’s, computers began to vastly improve in their capabilities and the PC exploded into just about every western home and became more capable with help from a little thing called the World Wide Web. In 1996, two guys casually set up a small research project that would later grow to take over the world. Those two guys were  Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and that project was ‘Google’. Windows was dominant with Windows 95 and 98 capturing the new concept of the “information highway” allowing absolute noobs to get online easily. 

Above: Bill Gates wearing all blue. A colour that he also liked to use in his error screens.


Now the whole world suddenly became smaller as emails and file sharing became common place. For the first time ever, you could see what the world was doing and instantly interact to it. We saw the rise of Youtube, Twitter, Myspace, Facebook, Tumblr, Wikipedia…etc. The world suddenly was full of worldwide interaction and information, and our PC’s were the only real gateway. Until 2007. On January 9th, 2007, one moment changed the world. During a Key Note, Steve Jobs calmly pulled a small glass slab out of his pocket. He touched the screen with his finger and flicked downwards with through a list of music. The crowd was shocked, they could do nothing but gasp and cheer. No one had ever seen the human-technology barrier broken so clearly; no more buttons, remotes, things to get in the way. You can now interact with your machine physically. 

This was of course, the introduction of the iPhone. The iPhone’s slogan was “This is only the beginning”. You can’t argue with that... But of course Android would later come along and beat its ass..


In the 2010’s the landscape began to change. This is where we really begin our story.
I want you to shift your mind, just for the duration of what remains in this article. You can put it back when you’re done reading- just bear with me.

 I want to propose an idea. What if I told you that the smartphone and tablet, those things that you take for granted every day, were the very early form, the infant stages - the next iteration (or continuation) of the PC.
“HERESY!!”, you scream. It can’t run Crysis 4, it can’t do video editing, you can’t write code on it! It’s just a toy. It's forgivable to still see tablets as those annoying things which SHOULD be able to do everything but somehow, they aren’t QUIET hitting the spot. You'd be partially correct but not entirely correct. Let me break it down for you:

There are two main groups of PC users: Content CREATORS and content CONSUMERS Most people have used a computer but have never written a line of code. I make videos, produce music, use word processors and have used some specialist engineering software. If it wasn't for these tasks (and a select few others), I could do almost everything else in my daily routine on my smartphone, right now.
This is where the content CONSUMERS come in. The content consumer demographic usually consists of people that are scared of/ don’t care about technology and are “casual users”. All those viral videos of  kitty cat’s, looking up recipes of cakes, Facebook, Twitter, browsing articles or news stories… I hate to admit it, but this population of PC user dominates. Why else do you think the iPad and other tablets are set to overtake PC sales?

People simply no longer need a netbook, and (perhaps) soon will not need an ultrabook to do most of this stuff. For $120 you can by a Tegra 3 Quadcore tablet that can do 80% of the stuff you need as a content consumer. Let’s put the stakes up a bit - what if we have a top-of-the-line smart phone? Can we account for the content creators? Assume we couple the device with an efficient dock that takes 4 USB ports, card readers, full size Blutooth keyboards and mice, output’s 5.1 surround sound and plug it all into a 30” monitor and you’ll have something like this:

Above: Smartphone acting as a computer running Ubuntu.

The concept is already here today. The only thing missing is the software and apps. Today the software side is simply NOT up to scratch, the gap between PC and mobile devices will only narrow as app developers begin to realise this and really cash in on “killer apps.” A killer app for example, may be a full version of Microsoft office with no compromises for the mobile space. A killer operating system may even have to be someone’s brainchild. It’s coming, but we still have to compromise for now.

Speaking of compromises, a lot of the technologically literate readers out there are probably poised over your keyboards ready to fire off a comment about the CPU architecture. Yes, this is the one thing holding us back from TRULY being in a post-PC era today. Let me break it down once again. 98% of mobile devices use ARM architecture (remember that small British Acorn company in the 80’s from above… yeah). ARM processors are insanely power efficient but do not allow the same apps that run on say, Windows or Mac OS
These apps just simply don’t readily run without severe modifications. Desktop PC operating system platforms use X86 architecture which is a world away from ARM. The only way I could see the two worlds coming together is if chip manufacturers such as AMD and Intel step up to the plate and produce ultra-low power, high performance X86 chips in the coming decades. Or if the apps developed on ARM portable devices become so capable that the need for X86 chips vanish all together (once again, decades away). The bottom line is that ultra-portable devices will continue to outsell PC’s and it’s just a matter of time before the big app developers/ CPU companies see the shiny new cash cow. These are my thoughts, no one can predict the future, except Marty Mcfly.

This is all truly amazing because the modern smart device has only been around for 5 years… 5 YEARS!! To clarify, a modern smart device is one that has a dominant capacitive touch screen input featuring the “App-dictates-all” concept. Digging deeper, the “App-dictates-all” concept means that the device is really just a blank canvas and it’s really the APPS turn it into WHATEVER the user wishes .It’s just starting, give it a chance. The hardware and, most importantly, the software will vastly improve from where it is today.On the topic of hardware, let's go back and look at the relative performances of PC's and desktops in more detail.

Above: Table of comparative performance.

When we look at the full picture, we see that we still have to be 3x the power of today’s smartphone to catch up to a 2007 PC’s graphics card (PC CPU’s obviously aren’t good at floating point calculations). Mid 2015 anyone? As for the Millions of Triangles Per Second (MTPS), I couldn’t find any info on the Adreno 330 in the Snapdragon 800 but Qualcomm said it featured 2x the performance of the 320 which can push 275 MTPS. With this in mind, 300+ MTPS is a safe bet. 
The bottom line is that our 2013 smartphones can be readily compared to the Play Station 3 and Xbox 360... that idea alone blew me away. It must be noted that PC CPU's are still much more capable than mobile chipsets when it comes to multitasking due to hyper-threading technology and the like.

I hate to be the one to predict the future and seem a fool, but I’m fairly certain that the time will come when we have one device that does it all. A device so small it fits in your pocket but has 5 times the floating operation calculations and graphics performance of today’s PC’s. I’m talking 2030 here, we still have to get over the problems of heat and power consumption, but computers were once the size of rooms so hey, what’s the harm in an open mind.

Next time you look at your phone, and you get frustrated when the GPS takes 10 seconds to find a lock, just remember that it’s going all the way to space and back! The computer that first sent the human race out there would probably take 6.24 hours to do the same thing at the very best!

Enjoy the rest of your day!


Krazit, Tom (April 3, 2006). "ARMed for the living room".CNet.com.