Tablets and smartphones are increasingly becoming our most important personal possessions, as they continue to annex our wallets, keys, and personal computing habits. As a result, many consumers are choosing to forgo traditional laptops and desktops.
But the future of personal computing isn't going to be all smartphones and tablets. Rather, it is likely to evolve into a wholly new form that adopts the best elements of each world—mobile and desktop.
Dark Days for PC Makers
In 2012, tablet sales soared by more than 75 percent over the previous year, according to market watchdog IDC. Over the same period, according to IHS data, PC sales fell for the first time in 11 years.
Data from research firm Gartner shows an even bleaker forecast for PCs, with total year-end (Q4) shipments down each year since 2010, the year the Apple iPad was released. And the trend is not limited to Windows computers: Macintosh devices have suffered quarter-to-quarter declines every period since the end of 2011, also according to IDC research.
"Tablets have dramatically changed the device landscape for PCs, not so much by 'cannibalizing' PC sales, but by causing PC users to shift consumption to tablets rather than replacing older PCs," said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner, in a January press release.
PCs Go Mobile
The PC's struggle to keep up with mobile is perhaps most evident in the ongoing, dramatic redesign of laptop and desktop operating systems.
Less than a year after the launch of the iPad, Apple added app support to OS X Snow Leopard, giving Mac computer users access to an App Store that had become wildly popular on the company's mobile devices. Microsoft has taken things a step further with its Windows 8 OS, attempting to visually unify the company's disparate PC, tablet, and phone software. The result is something that looks more or less like a mobile user interface (UI) right out of the box.
But in spite of how it may look, these changes are not being dictated solely by mobile trends. Rather, UIs on both mobile devices and PCs are evolving to meet somewhere in the middle, and some of the best aspects of each approach are found in newer devices.
Microsoft's Surface slates, for example, adopt the mobile, touch-centric elements of traditional tablets, but also include the most essential elements of a PC—with a detachable keyboard and a familiar Windows desktop. But this confluence of design philosophies can occasionally go too far. Windows 8 itself has been roundly scorned for pushing its UI too far into mobile territory—mainly for ditching the Start menu that has been a staple of the OS since the 1990s.
While Microsoft has suggested it plans to eventually reinstate the Start menu, some developers have taken it upon themselves to imagine a mobile future for Windows. Jay Machalani, an independent UI designer, conceptualized just such a system in a YouTube video that racked up more than 90,000 views in just 6 days. On his website, Machalani writes, "splitting the OS into a separate Desktop and Tablet OS is not a solution. Windows needs to be flexible and work on all type of computers."
"You may be wondering why the OS on your Desktop computer needs to be tablet ready," he adds. "Simple! Because we are evolving to convertible/hybrid devices."
The Surface slates are a tentative first step toward that hybrid future. Unsurprisingly, Apple is expected to unveil its own hybrid tablet sometime next year.
Failure to Commit
What's most clear is that the future of personal computing is mobile. But what remains to be seen is how designers of smartphones and tablets will navigate some of the more awkward, undeveloped aspects of the mobile UI, such as typing and multitasking.
For example, a recent report by SurveyMonkey found nearly three quarters of respondents use search engines on their mobiles devices, but nearly two thirds (61.4 percent) also admitted they find it more difficult to search on mobile phones than on PCs. Developers have attempted to sidestep the clunkiness of mobile search by experimenting with advanced voice search systems—like Siri and Google Now—but it's far from clear whether users will ultimately warm up to them.
The onus is also on PC designers to facilitate the hybrid future—to meet mobile halfway. One area that needs work is touchscreen UIs. According to NPD DisplaySearch, touchscreen notebooks accounted for a mere 7 percent of all laptop sales in the first half of 2013, and while that figure is expected to reach 11 percent by the end of the year, the lag in adoption suggests a fundamental disconnect between the user experiences of PCs and tablets.
Whether or not consumers go for touchscreen laptops, the future is clearly trending that way. Just look at the adorable way toddlers expect print magazines to be touch-based:
Poll numbers suggest that the development of these hybrid devices has a firm basis in consumer demand. A majority of respondents in a recent survey by analytics firm ForeSee claimed they prefer to consume media through mobile devices rather than personal computers. The same study also found more than half of respondents (52 percent) access news, sports, and streaming mobile sites and apps from home, making "mobile" something of a misnomer.
Kitagawa touched on this point in a statement earlier this year:
"Whereas as once we imagined a world in which individual users would have both a PC and a tablet as personal devices, we increasingly suspect that most individuals will shift consumption activity to a personal tablet, and perform creative and administrative tasks on a shared PC."
Smartphones and tablets are gradually evolving into command centers for personal tech, especially as home automation and machine-to-machine communication take hold. It makes sense that the once-separate realm of personal computing is beginning to merge with the greater demands of mobile tech. The only question is how developers will combine the most defining elements of the two.