The Once-Mighty PC's Diminished Status in Today's Mobile Era
The technology industry is a numbers game. Microsoft's Windows empire was built on the foundation of hitting once-unimaginable statistical milestones. It was a big deal back in 1999 when the PC industry, consisting almost exclusively of devices powered by Windows, collectively sold more than 100 million computers for the first time ever. That number rose steadily for more than a decade afterward, peaking at more than 350 million PCs sold in 2012. Since then, PC sales have declined steadily every year.
Meanwhile, sales of handheld devices that are every bit as powerful as a PC from the 1990s have left the PC in the proverbial dust. As PCs were beginning their slowdown, the smartphone market was taking off. Last year, worldwide sales of smartphones reached more than 1.4 billion. That's more than five times as many PCs sold.
Microsoft tried to crack the mobile hardware market with Windows-powered phones and failed miserably. But instead of sitting back and licking its wounds, Microsoft did the unexpected: It wholeheartedly embraced the iOS and Android platforms.
Consider these developments: Microsoft is now one of the biggest developers of apps for both platforms. At last count, Microsoft has at least 92 apps available for iPhone and at least 30 for Android smartphones. Those rosters include the entire Office family, with apps that are updated at a pace you'd expect from a startup.
Services including Cortana, OneDrive and Office 365 are also first-class citizens on both platforms, bringing Microsoft's machine learning and speech recognition to billions of handheld devices.
In another hell-freezes-over moment, Microsoft is now selling the Android-powered Samsung Galaxy S8 and S8+ Microsoft Edition phones at its retail stores, with apps like Outlook, OneDrive and Cortana installed as part of a customization package.
And for those who were looking for signs of life in the Windows Mobile platform at this year's Build 2017 developer conference in Seattle, a new mobile app for Microsoft Azure made a headline appearance onstage -- for iOS and Android only.
At Build, I heard some grumbling from longtime Windows developers who are nonplussed at the decline in the supremacy of the PC. But it's the only logical strategy for Microsoft to pursue.
Smartphones have gone from a curiosity to a luxury and are now a necessity. In many cases, it's easier to whip out a phone to handle a task, which is why smart Azure and Office 365 administrators have the mobile apps for those services close at hand.
Meanwhile, as the slowdown in sales suggests, PCs are becoming legacy devices for specialized tasks. In industrialized nations, you'll still find PCs on factory floors and in back offices, and there are still creative and financial jobs that are better done on a PC -- can you imagine designing a multi-million dollar advertising campaign or preparing an annual report on a smartphone? That's why the high end of the PC market, where most of the profits are to be found, is growing at a healthy clip year over year.
But it's a different story for commodity PCs, where sales are plummeting. That's true in the developed world, where consumers and small businesses have determined they can squeeze another couple of years out of their 5-year-old PCs, given the shrinking workload users put on them these days. The trend away from PCs is especially evident in the developing world, where a new generation is growing up with mobile devices as their only connection to the outside world. They'll never own a PC, because they don't need one.
As Microsoft's business increasingly moves to the cloud, what really matters is making sure those cloud services are accessible on every device so that customers can get work done using whichever device is closest at hand. Given their ubiquity, that's much more likely to be a smartphone than a PC.
Ed Bott is a Microsoft MVP and an award-winning tech journalist who has covered Microsoft for 25 years. He's written numerous books on Windows and Office, including the best-selling "Inside Out" series from Microsoft Press. Bott delivers outspoken advice on a wide range of technology topics at his ZDNet blog, "The Ed Bott Report."