The PC industry is in crisis, and it's our fault. We used to use our home computers for everything from checking email, to surfing the web, to listening to music. Now we're doing that with our smartphones, tablets, and even voice-controlled, Internet-connected speakers. These shifts in consumer behavior have thrown the PC market into free fall. Global shipments dropped 3.9% year-over-year this past quarter, according to research firm IDC.
Computer makers like Lenovo and HP have responded by trying to make their PCs more like tablets. Their two-in-one "hybrid" devices can work as both a desktop and a tablet, powered by Microsoft's touchscreen-friendly Windows 10. There's evidence the market for these hybrids is is growing. But that hasn't been enough to stop the bleeding.
"The total available market for shipping PCs into the home is getting smaller and smaller," says IDC analyst Linn Huang.
Even in this grim environment, Apple and rival Microsoft aren't giving up on PCs. Both companies this week unveiled new computers that, taken together, offer a glimpse of what the future holds for desktops and laptops.
With Apple's new MacBook Pro laptop, the standout feature is a touchscreen strip called the Touch Bar. It offers different functionality depending on what app the user has open. Launch iTunes, and you'll see playback controls. Switch to Safari, and you'll see a list of your open tabs. The Touch Bar also packs Apple's Touch ID fingerprint scanner, enabling mobile payments and lightning-fast switching between user accounts.
Microsoft's new Surface Studio, meanwhile, is a behemoth desktop with a built-in hinge that allows it to lie nearly flat. When combined with the firm's Surface Pen stylus and new Surface Dial control input, the Studio offers an experience more akin to using a drawing desk or an easel than a computer. It's a bold effort for what is, believe it or not, the four-decade-old firm's first desktop computer.
Taken together, Apple's new MacBook Pro and Microsoft's Surface Studio are an acknowledgement of a reality facing PC vendors: Desktops and laptops are increasingly becoming more useful as professional tools than consumer gadgets. That explains the flashy new features: You and I probably don't need a desktop that folds down to a 20-degree angle, but an architect or graphic artist might. It also justifies their sky-high cost. The MacBook Pros with the Touch Bar start at $1,799, while the Surface Studio will set you back at least $2,999. Those price tags are tough for an everyday user to justify, but professionals might see the machines as an investment if they're making money by using them.
Indeed, while unveiling the new MacBook Pro, Apple pitched its Touch Bar as a boon for video and photo editors, DJs, artists and other creatives. Microsoft's Surface Studio reveal, meanwhile, was crafted to pitch the computer and Dial accessory as a content creators' dream. Meanwhile, if you're a student writing a term paper or a parent uploading pictures to Facebook, you're probably fine with a tablet or hybrid like an iPad or Surface Pro, or an inexpensive computer like a Chromebook.
To be sure, there are other computer makers out there offering mid-range desktops and laptops, mostly running Windows. But Apple and Microsoft at least appear convinced that the PC is for professionals, and speedier processors, sharper screens and better keyboards alone aren't enough to entice them to buy new computers. (The situation is different for office workers, says IDC's Huang, who will be long tied to the PC.)
All this is important because of Apple and Microsoft's stature in the technology world. Apple has long been a trendsetter in PCs — the first MacBook Air was a revelation, heralding the age of the ultrabook. Microsoft is a comparatively new player in hardware, but its bold efforts like the Surface Book are attracting well-deserved attention. That said, neither company makes much of their money from desktops and laptops, and that isn't likely to change. But the computers these two firms produce could very well set the tone for the PCs of the future. That being true, expect plenty more high-powered, feature-packed, very expensive machines. The rest of us, meanwhile, will keep on swiping at our smartphones.