Of course, I do also use a laptop computer, and that has changed things slightly. Nonetheless, the laptop is merely a miniaturized copy of a desktop computer, and I use it in more or less the same manner as the desktop, except that I am not chained to the desk at home. I can use it in different locations, but the way I use it remains the same.
The hardware has changed dramatically in the past twenty-five years but the method by which I use a computer remains the same: I sit in a chair and type on the keyboard and stare at a monitor.All this is now changing and, by the year 2015, desktop computers will constitute just 18% of the consumer PC market, according to Forrester Research. Last year, sales of laptops eclipsed sales of desktops for the first time, and new devices such as the Apple iPad, the various smart cell phones, and other portable computing devices threaten to change the way we use computers.
The desktop is dying.
In 2008, desktops were tied with laptops in the market: about 45 percent of the PCs that American consumers purchased for personal use were desktops, about 45 percent were laptops, and the rest were netbooks and other mini computers, according to data supplied by Forrester Research. Last year, sales of laptops eclipsed sales of desktops for the first time. According to Forrester's projections, the decline in desktop PC sales will continue unabated over the next five years.
We are no longer chained to our desks.
The term "personal computer" was invented about 1980 but turns out to be a misnomer. The desktop computers often serve as "family computers" with two or more users. In fact, the truly personal computers are the laptops, netbooks, tablets, and handheld devices of today. They are far more "personal" than the behemoths that sit on a desk and plug into a wall outlet.
Windows and Macintosh are both multi-user operating systems. You can log on, enter a personal user name and password, and then a personalized desktop appears on the screen. That desktop can be different for each user, and each user's private information may be visible only to that one user after he or she logs in. If properly configured, no one user can see another user's information.
In contrast, Apple's iOS and Google's Android operating systems are both designed for the tasks needed for a single user: e-mail, calendar, and entertainment. Forrester's numbers also suggest that in the future we'll have many such machines around the house. Your "main" computer probably will be a laptop, and you'll probably have several smaller, tablet-type machines that you use regularly as well. You will probably have little need for a desk and a dedicated machine that sits on top of that desk all the time. Instead, it will be far more practical to pull the laptop out of the closet when you need it and open it on that desk or, even more likely, on the living room couch. The other, even smaller, devices will suffice for most tasks. The laptop might be used only for "heavy duty" computing tasks, such as writing a novel or creating software.
Several factors have met together in a "perfect storm" to make this practical. The continuing miniaturization of electronics, along with the ever increasing power of computers, increased storage capacities of batteries, improvements in video displays, the availability of wireless networks nearly everywhere, and cloud computing all have helped cut the umbilical cord of desktop computers.
In fact, I would suggest that "our computers" no longer sit on desktops. Sometimes today, and even more often in the future, "our computers" sit in a variety of data centers at worldwide locations. They are known as Google, Yahoo, eBay, FamilySearch, Ancestry.com, MapQuest, Hotmail, and other corporate names. We typically don't know which data centers contain "our computers," and we don't care. "Our computers" typically are shared with thousands, perhaps millions, of other users. We simply access "our computers" with handheld and portable computing devices, wherever we happen to be located. We can use "our computers" from our living rooms, from the office, from a coffee shop, from a city park, or even while driving down the highway. The location of "our computers" is no longer important. All we need is an intelligent terminal to access them. That intelligent terminal may be handheld, or it may be as large as today's laptop computer with a 13-inch or even an 18-inch screen. For some of us, the “intelligent terminal” still sits on our desks.
Best of all, we are not restricted to any one intelligent terminal to access "our computers." We might use a laptop with a large display screen to look at a genealogy database when at home. However, when at a local society meeting or when doing research at the courthouse, we may use a handheld cell phone with a tiny display to look at the same information. The required hardware is becoming less and less important. All we care about is access to the information, when we want it and where we want it.
You might be skeptical that cloud-based systems will ever be able to match what a big, powerful computer on your desk can do. However, I would suggest you focus not on the hardware but on the functionality instead. What is more important: more power or more capability? The most powerful multimedia computer in the world with the fanciest available screen is useless if it is not available to you when you need it. A behemoth desktop computer plugged into a wall outlet at home is a waste of money when all you want to do is find a restaurant while traveling, check the weather forecast when at the golf course, or check your genealogy data while at the courthouse.
All this will not happen overnight. In fact, Forrester Research says that it will be a fact by 2015. If you look around you, you can see that it is actually happening now.
I travel a lot, mostly by airlines and occasionally by other means. Five years ago, I used to see people using laptop computers while traveling. I still see that today, but I also see an ever increasing number of people using tiny netbook computers, iPads, handheld cellular "smartphones" and more. While standing at the checkout stand at the grocery store yesterday, the young lady in front of me was obviously checking her email and sending a Twitter "tweet" while standing in line. While waiting for my automobile to be serviced last week, I saw a salesman entering a new order on his Apple iPhone. I often see others checking their friends' activities on Facebook or entering their own information as well.
In the last decade, portable computing devices of all sorts have erased many of the advantages that desktops once claimed. Meanwhile, desktop computers have one glaring deficiency: they are chained to your desk. The world is moving to mobile computing devices.
Of course, all this produces challenges for those who produce the software. How can you display sufficient, meaningful information on a 3-inch display screen? How do you simultaneously display the same information on a 12-inch screen? How can you enter new information on a device that may not have a keyboard? How do you protect and isolate one user's private information on systems that are used by thousands, perhaps millions of people?
These are interesting questions as well as technological challenges. They are not insurmountable, however. Many solutions have already been created and more will be available soon.
The next few years will be exciting to watch. We are all fortunate to be able to participate in this technology revolution. We all will benefit from having weather information, restaurant menus, highway traffic information, and information about our ancestors all available at whatever time and place we feel the need to look.