We are constantly reminded that the PC market is contracting, crashing, fading out of existence. There are many possible reasons behind the hard statistics, ranging from global recession to the aberrational removal of the Start Menu in Windows 8. Some, however, argue that the prevalence of desktop virtualization projects is also a factor in this continuing decline. Could this actually be true?
It’s certain that desktop virtualization can contribute to some of the factors leading us toward the heralded “post-PC era.” First, virtualizing the desktop allows one to extend the life of hardware and postpone the refresh cycle by turning old PCs into capable thin clients. Indeed, testing by DaaS provider dinCloud found that old PCs were possibly the best “thin” clients available on the market.
Second, agents such as Citrix Receiver extend the reach of Windows desktops and applications onto a huge variety of devices. Given that Windows has traditionally been a PC-based operating system, making these desktops and apps available to a huge variety of non-PC devices could also significantly contribute to the decline in the PC market.
But is it simply that? Is the uptick in virtualization a contributory factor toward a declining PC market, or is desktop virtualization a necessary way to deliver “old-school” Windows desktops and applications to a changing user base?
What I believe is that the advent of tablets and powerful smartphones has significantly altered the technology market. The end-user market has always been divided into those who create content—creators—and those who consume content—consumers. Creators could generally be thought of as IT staff, architects, accountants, designers, gamers, and the like, whereas consumers would be those who merely access email, websites, and social networks. But ten years or more ago, there was generally only one popular device available for both creators and consumers: the PC. To access the Internet, to pick up email, to manage your finances electronically—all of these things mandated a PC at the time. Now, users have choice. Indeed, when faced with a consumer user today asking “what sort of computer should I buy?” my first action is to evaluate their needs and see whether they require a PC, a laptop, a tablet, or just a high-end phone. With hindsight, it could be argued that ten to twelve years ago, consumers were being sold devices that had computing power far exceeding that which they required for the tasks at hand.
Fast forward to today, and there is no longer any need for your “consumer” user to provision a physical desktop PC merely to browse Facebook, read the news, and play Angry Birds. Tablets and smartphones, which now have the processing power of early PCs, can provide all the compute a consumptive user requires, with the addition of a large application ecosystem geared specifically toward these form factors.
Application development has also started to lean toward this model. Applications run on handheld devices, and then data is handed to remote-provisioned systems or web services. Now, the primary user of the old-style physical PC is the creator—the person whose profession/hobby and application needs dictate that they require precision tools or heavy computing power. Indeed, even those creators are now struggling to exhaust the capabilities of their present hardware, meaning that aggressive refreshes of PCs are not as frequent.
So, with all these factors in mind, is desktop virtualization a contributor toward the global decline in PC sales? As a direct cause, no, I don’t believe so. It’s more a symptom of a changing ecosystem, rather than a driver toward the change. Desktop virtualization was always inevitable as soon as server virtualization took off, but it would only ever be adopted if it provided something of value.
In the main, desktop virtualization has increased in popularity alongside the changing market as a stopgap way of providing old, familiar Windows applications to the new wave of “consumer” users who no longer require a full-fledged desktop. It can also provide a way to access a traditional desktop on-demand rather than maintaining an entire physical system. But, in my opinion, desktop virtualization is more a response to a changing market than a contributor to the change itself.
However, it is true that the prevalence of desktop and application virtualization isn’t doing anything to reinvigorate the fading PC market. Rather than being in the “post-PC era,” I feel we are now in a hybrid era where PCs are merely one of a variety of devices used for specific work styles and use cases. Users no longer have the same dependence on them that they once did, and because of that, our methods of access and management will similarly need to adapt.