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Why Google's wrong: desktop PCs are still relevant

GoogleGoogle ad sales boss John Herlihy has claimed that smartphones will replace desktop computers in just three years' time. He's wrong.

"In three years time, desktops will be irrelevant," Herlihy said at an Irish technology conference on Wednesday. "In Japan, most research is done today on smartphones, not PCs."

One news report said the audience was "baffled" by the remark.

Admittedly, if you read his meaning in a certain way, it could be argued that desktops are already irrelevant. For example, many people I know already use laptops as their primary computer, even when they are in their offices. I often work sitting in a comfortable chair, using an HP laptop with a 17in screen.

I guess you could say that type of laptop use makes desktop PCs irrelevant. But it says more about the rise of powerful, inexpensive laptop computers. And the tasks these users need the laptop for are the same as what they to do on a desktop.

As for smaller platforms, traditional productivity applications don't work very well on netbooks. Smartphones are not even in consideration when I start thinking about tools to write a report or create a large spreadsheet.

The growth of mobile search

Google would know this better than I, but my guess is that Herlihy's statement about Japan reflects a growth in the number of searches, not the diminishing importance of desktop or laptop computers.

Of course, when mobile, I use Google on my iPhone - indeed, I'm searching much more often than I used to, thanks to mobile devices. But I also use my laptops and desktop for research. Just as much as in the past, in fact.

What I think Herlihy was trying to explain is why Google is so gung-ho about mobile search. My opinion is that advances in mobile search will also improve the desktop search experience, so Google's shifting technology focus doesn't concern me.

But the shift does reflect Google's biggest fear, which Herlihy described thus:

"The fear is the next Sergey and Larry will come up with a disruptive technology or service that will eliminate the need for Google... There is a tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurs to end the need for Google. It's our challenge not to let that happen by continuing to drive innovation and value."

That also explains why tomorrow's "sexiest jobs" at Google will "centre around mining data", which Herlihy said drives the company's attempts to hire the world's best mathematicians.

A real computer

Even with the rise of smartphones, users will still have a need for the big tasks that only a "real computer" can support. Video and photo editing can be done on other platforms, but serious work is still done on a desktop or laptop and will be even more than three years in the future.

There are also entertainment applications which demand a larger screen, probably connected to something that looks very much like a desktop PC. This isn't a huge part of Google's fear factor, but helps drive Apple's business.

Okay, desktops are no longer a sexy platform, and neither are most laptops. Smartphones, meanwhile, are very sexy and clearly where the action is for entrepreneurs and developers.

Herlihy and Google are wise to be concerned about new competitors springing up to replace Google.

That, however, doesn't mean the desktop computer is doomed to immediate extinction and laptops are still doing quite well, especially at the low end.

Smartphones are great for what they do, but that doesn't include big tasks for which real computers remain the best choice, now and three years from now, too.

You can view excerpts of Herlihy's remarks here.

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