When Will Desktop Computers Be History?

February 26th, 2009

You know that Mac desktops now constitute over 70% of Apple’s sales, at least as of the last quarter of 2008. That means that note-book sales went up, while the iMac, Mac mini and Mac Pro declined rather substantially.

Now part of this is no doubt due to the perilous state of the economy. I sort of suspect that some people who might have preferred both decided they could only afford a single computer. So they choose a note-book, to get, as much as possible, the best of both worlds.

Of course, the entire PC industry is moving in the same direction, only Apple is leading the way.

Now this doesn’t mean that Apple is necessarily abandoning the traditional desktop any time soon. You will still see the iMac, which moves in good numbers, and the Mac Pro for high-end content creators. I also expect that the Mac mini will get its long-delayed refresh in the near future, though only Apple knows whether it’ll have the same form factor with just some new and faster parts, or will get a new look and focus.

This trend also means, of course, that the hopes and dreams for the so-called headless iMac, or the “mythical midrange Mac minitower” are not likely to come to pass. The demand for such a product just isn’t there and time has clearly passed it by.

Now as far as I’m concerned, I will find it difficult, at least for a while, to abandon my Mac Pro. Yes, my year-old 17-inch MacBook Pro, maxed out with 4GB of RAM, is a pretty snappy beast. For most of you, the screen real estate, CPU horsepower and hard drive are more than sufficient for any task you might toss at it. You could, if you want, hook up a separate keyboard and mouse, and even a 30-inch display if you like. In fact, I expect that if you hid the MacBook Pro behind a curtain, you would not likely even think of it as a “mere” note-book.

However, there are still some of us out there who require the ultimate performance that a Mac workstation can deliver, and it’s a sure thing that a pair of quad-core Intel Xeons is a far superior number cruncher when compared to the Core 2 Duo on Apple’s portables. But that situation is no doubt poised for change, as Intel continues to roll out mobile-based quad-core CPUs.

Consider a future MacBook Pro that contains two quad-core processors, with sophisticated power management that would put some of those cores to sleep, and extend battery life. You can already order your Apple note-book with a 7200 rpm hard drive for superior read/write speeds, and future generations of high-density solid state drives will deliver 500GB storage space and more at an affordable price.

Do you see where I’m going here?

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Intel working real hard to make mobile processors essentially match the performance of their high-end desktop equivalents in the not-too-distant future, because they have a strong financial incentive to move development in that direction.

At the same time, don’t assume that a 17-inch MacBook Pro is the largest model Apple plans to produce. While it would be rather costly and somewhat heavy, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility to foresee a 20-inch version as well. Now I don’t know that I’d want to buy one, because it would be a bulky load in a carrying case, and I don’t think many of you would want to lug one around an airport during a critical business trip. Air travel is torture enough as it is. But for taking around the office, or a rare trip between offices, it might be an ideal companion.

The key to the phasing out of desktop computers is the ability to migrate essentially all of the performance and most of the expansion flexibility to the portable segment. Now beyond processors and hard drives, there are still other issues. You can’t, for example, swap out the graphics processor in a Mac note-book today , but there is no reason that it can’t be done. Instead of putting the graphics hardware on the motherboard, they can be migrated to a separate printed circuit card that you can simply slide out.

Apple’s MacBook Pros have an ExpressCard/34 slot, which you might regard as the equivalent, in part, to the PCI-based expansion slot on the Mac Pro. Now very few people ever put anything in those slots; they go largely unused. They mostly serve as psychological props to shore up your confidence that, if need be, you could install a card if you wanted.

However, there are certainly a number of content creators who do populate those slots with specialty audio cards and other hardware. So I can’t see why Apple couldn’t come up with a MacBook Pro with two slots. That ought to serve a similar purpose, as would adding more RAM slots on the chassis.

I don’t say it’ll necessarily happen this year or the next, but I bet I’ll be writing a column on this subject four or five years from now on a successor to my 17-inch MacBook Pro. I’ll have a huge LED backlit display in front of me, and I won’t miss my Mac Pro. Not for a minute.

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11 Responses to “When Will Desktop Computers Be History?”

  1. shane blyth says:

    when businesses can buy a laptop at the same price as a desktop and they sell their offices and desks !
    Till then Offices will use desktops cause they are cheaper and harder to steal from your desk than a laptop.
    Desktops will probably always be a necessity in large corporations. Of course the fact that laptops are v expensive to repair is another major hindrance. If your screen goes or even a keyboard on your laptop the replacement price compared to a desktop unit (unless it is an iMac) is silly

  2. Karl says:

    For the average user desktops are becoming obsolete or at least won’t be the main choice as years come to pass.

    For business, I think the thin-client computing is the holy grail. Where the work force has a laptop or “netbook” that really just runs an OS and all the productivity apps and documents are served up via the network.

    But for content creators I think the desktop workstation is going reign king for a while longer. Not only because of the horse power but because of all the “stuff” that goes with different types of content creation.

    So just like TV didn’t kill radio and the internet didn’t kill TV, desktops will continue to exist but more quality choices for how you want to work will be made available.

  3. Andrew says:

    I think the desktop still has a lot of life left in the home sector because of the ease of upgrades and the low cost of storage. Further, don’t underestimate demand for machine capable of playing the latest games. Laptops generally make poor gaming machines, and games are a big draw for PCs.

  4. hmurchison says:

    DCC (Digital Content Creation) pretty much requires a desktop if you’re doing anything more than page layout/web design and you’re looking at obtaining efficiency via:

    Add in accelerator cards
    Add in connectivity cards
    Beefier GPU like the top of the line Nvidia and forthcoming Larrabee (Intel GPU)

    The top speed and expandability will always come from Workstations. Though it’s going to
    take years for desktop PC to abandon the mini tower case which is sad. It’s such a waste
    of space IMO.

  5. Karl says:

    @ Andrew…
    Gaming is a interesting point. I agree that gaming on a desktop PC is still big, but I’ve read somewhere that it continues to decline as gaming consoles continue to expand. So while I agree with you, hardcore gamers will continue to buy desktops for similar reasons why Content Creators would, I can see most of them switching to a game console as the years go by.

    The desktop computer will around a very long time but it being the default choice for everyone is in decline that’s for sure as the choices for the “average” home user continue to look better and better than a desktop.

  6. arw says:

    I will always buy a desktop Mac over a portable Mac. More speed and flexibility. Longer, more reliable life. Larger screen and keyboard. Mouse.

  7. Louis Wheeler says:

    Given that we still have mainframe computers, it is unlikely that any form factor will disappear. Technological improvements will allow new forms of computers. Laptops are not the “end all and be all” of computing. They are merely the most convenient form to date. But, they have their problems. Desktop computers always will be necessary for multiple users or for public service computing.

    Computer chips are getting so small and power efficient that wearable computers are the next step. How that will eventuate is still to be determined. Will the computer clip onto your belt? Will every peripherial communicate wirelessly?

    3D glasses are improving in quality and form factor, but how do you input the data? How do you control the computer? Voice control is insufficient, but keyboards are awkward to use. Will you use gloves on a virtual keyboard? That seems rather awkward. Will you wear a cap that can read nerve impulses to the muscles in your scalp? You have many muscles that you don’t consciously use. You could be taught to use them to type with. There is nothing innate about learning to type with your fingers. Eventually, the computers will be surgically implanted, but that is many decades away.

  8. DaveD says:

    While I only have a Mac notebook, the desktops are not going away. The notebook became in demand when Apple demostrated one in color with a “wireless” feature. The Mac desktops except the mini have the processing muscle that just overshadowed the notebook. I can see a 17″ MacBook Pro replacing a low-end desktop for lighter duty. Heat is still the Achilles’ heal for a notebook.

    We never got a PowerBook G5.

  9. javaholic says:

    While the laptop has convenience on its side, desktops will always serve their purpose for certain segments of the market. With Apples fetish for going thinner, packing the processing muscle and expansion of a MacPro into a portable won’t happen in the near future. Trading off performance for power consumption and cooling will continue be the challenge and that’s literally the price you pay for miniaturization. Just because there has been a dip in desktop sales over portables doesn’t mean that desktops are on their way out. Apple have done little to energise their line of desktop computers. What do they expect?

  10. Andrew says:

    Gaming has grown on consoles, but remains and will remain strong on the desktop as well. Consoles are great for action games, but lousy for role-playing games and strategy type games. Even action games are better on a high end PC.

    I am currently playing Mass Effect and Fallout 3, both of which are available for PC and for consoles, and both of which are much higher rated in reviews of the PC version, which has better graphics, faster loading and overall better gameplay.

  11. Kaleberg says:

    A few thousand years ago, back when the Cray 1 was the fastest computer in the world, supercomputer people would make up charts showing how much computer problem would solve what problems. A lot of them were in aviation, solving the Navier-Stokes equation, and back then they were lucky to solve a simple wing, but marked out at higher levels of computation, calibrated to years by applying Moore’s law, were the problems of the future: an entire airplane, a helicopter, a hypersonic plane and so on. Wind tunnel testing grew increasingly less important as computers got faster. Using a computer to model aircraft performance is much easier and more convenient than using a wind tunnel.

    We have a similar thing going on with the move to laptops. Laptops have intrinsic advantages. You can lug them home, you can take them on trips and you can use them in odd ball places. From you description, it sounds like audio processing is moving into the laptop sphere. I wouldn’t be surprised. You can actually do simple CGI on a laptop nowadays, though Hollywood grade stuff requires server farms. Has anyone made a chart? My experiences with a MacBook Pro 17″ doing video suggest that I already have a news show grade portable studio, and in ten years, there will be little reason for a desktop for basic video production.

    That brings up the problem of I/O support, but I suspect we’ll be seeing faster internal and external buses for real time, multi-channel, HD video recording, so long as there are enough slots. Either that, or we need more intelligent hubs. After all, a serious production has to run all those wires anyway. Why should they all just be analog or USB or Firewire? Surely there could be a bit of storage and inteligence in the system. It would be nice to bet that Apple will give everyone more slots, but that isn’t the way Apple works. They want outside inventors to come up with solutions that work with the slots they have. If nothing else, when people start running multi-camera HDTV studios on their laptops, there will be a lot of happy camera makers, and some happy people selling little boxes that pull everything together so you can edit in iMovie or Final Cut or whatever you choose, and when you are done, just pack everything up into a backpack.

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