So we see in the news again that PC shipments are falling. Doom! Doom! Abandon website! Or, indeed, perhaps not.
The estimated number of PCs shipped in 2013 is thought to be around 300 million, according to regular soothsayers, IDC. That's the level in around 2008, and they're not expecting that number to significantly rise... Or fall.
It's a significant drop. -10.1% in 2013, the biggest drop in numbers recorded. It's not to be ignored. And IDC goes on to guess that there will be continued shrinkage next year, expecting to see another -3.8% fall in sales. But then, oddly, their long-range futuremancers predict a slightly positive turn. Not a dramatic change in fortunes, certainly, but they expect to see this decline level off. PCs aren't as popular as they used to be. So what does this mean?
The first thing to bear in mind about these numbers is there's no way to extrapolate information about gaming PCs. When it comes to what those PCs are being used for, we simply don't know. The belief is that, with the expectation of levelling numbers, people who already have them are replacing them, but new people aren't adopting the great wheezing boxes in a world of smartphones and tablets. But that doesn't sound quite right to me. As much as whizzbang tablets are fantastic, it's still pretty tricky to type your homework on them. Fortunately, IDC also postulates what seems more likely to me: that people just don't see a need to upgrade their current machine. So says Senior Research Analyst, Jay Chou:
"Perhaps the chief concern for future PC demand is a lack of reasons to replace an older system. While IDC research finds that the PC still remains the primary computing device – for example, PCs are used more hours per day than tablets or phones – PC usage is nonetheless declining each year as more devices become available. And despite industry efforts, PC usage has not moved significantly beyond consumption and productivity tasks to differentiate PCs from other devices. As a result, PC lifespans continue to increase, thereby limiting market growth."
And how. With Windows 7 running on machines that would have struggled with the dreadful Vista, and Windows XP still being supported through to the end of next year, were you not interested in gaming, what possible aspect of your machine would you need to change? A five year old PC handles the web, email, Word and Bejeweled - the Big Four - just dandy. With Windows 8 offering little to the desktop, there's no sense of need for movement, and certainly nothing vaguely close to the perceived need to shift from Win 3.1 to 95, or 98 to XP.
And this even extends to gaming. A good PC from three years ago will still run pretty much everything, maybe only needing a new stick of RAM popped in, rather than worrying about replacing the whole box. With the stagnation of the previous console generation for so many years, the AAAs weren't pushing technology in any interesting directions - there simply haven't been the Unreals or the Cryses that drive a gaming generation to spec a new system. Now the new consoles are out, they're pretty much equivalent to a decent current PC, so again that big shove is missing.
Of course, the other reason RPS isn't tying its noose is that PC gaming is just so damned big right now. The scale of everything from eSports to bundle sales, MMOs to Steam, shows a vibrant, thriving PC market, as idiosyncratic and bloody-minded as it's always been. Steam user numbers are growing at an astonishing rate, and RPS's own readership only climbs. In the six years since RPS was the only dedicated PC gaming site out there, we're now surrounded by (unworthy) competition. Major cross-platform sites that ignored the PC back when we were put our boots on are now putting it front and centre. Big cross-platform publishers are confused by it, certainly, not understanding that 10% of their sales is perhaps, you know, TEN PERCENT OF THEIR SALES, but everything points toward PC gaming being bigger than it's ever been, and only pointing upward.
So what is the future? Obviously that's a question we ask ourselves rather a lot. Our business rather depends on it. And indeed our beloved hobby. I could speculate. You should, in the comments. But while we wonder whether tablets-with-keyboards will evolve their way to being powerful enough to run top-end games, the reality is that'll still be on a tiny little screen. It seems, for the foreseeable future at least, there will continue to be a market for desk-hogging great coughing metal behemoths plugged into miles-wide screens. And you know what - 300 million PCs a year? That's an awful lot of PCs.