picture via Wikipedia's "Girl Talk" page

Earlier this year, a couple of days before Apple gave the first preview of the new Mac Pro, I was wondering about the future of "heavy duty" computers.

What do the Macbook/iMac/Mac Mini series not do well that a Mac user might want their machine to do? (ie. Why would a potential "new Mac Pro" customer not be happy with what is already on the market? These machines are now faster, more powerful and cheaper than what was possible in these form factors a few years ago.)
What might a user of a desktop machine (as opposed to a laptop) want out of their box?

Looking back, I realised that I overlooked something that seems pretty clear to me now. I think had assumed that people used laptops everywhere – sitting on the sofa, in Starbucks, on trains etc. etc. Including at a desk.

Now, I'm not so sure.

Since writing that post, the new Mac Pro has indeed gone away, replaced by a completely different Mac Pro, which has got the Apple world excited about the desktop computer again and, if the podcasts I listen to are anything to go by, the idea of retina/4k displays for Macs other than the Retina MacBook Pro.1

Sure, there is some discussion about the best CPU configuration (the payoff between more expensive, more cores, vs. fewer cores and faster clock speed) – but this seems to be an issue of how to get the best value for money out of different models. But after years of the interesting thing about the latest computer being the computer (ie. how fast and powerful the machine is), it seems that the most interesting thing about the latest desktop computers is the screen.

I think that suggests something interesting that is going on.

Does a Desktop need a Desk?

Meanwhile, I've been looking at getting my own desk in some sort of order at home, turning it into more of a "workstation area" (as opposed to "table that things get piled up on"). Part of that was getting a bigger screen to plug my laptop into 2 so, while I happened to be in Brent Cross shopping centre, I took a look at the monitors they had in stock in the John Lewis Computers & Electronics section.

They had one.

Being the kind of technology shopper who likes to have some choice, I tried PC World around the corner, expecting to find a larger selection. They had none.

Sure, they had screens – an entire wall full of flat screen TVs, with Freeview, remote control, built-in DVD players, multiple inputs etc. etc. But no monitors for someone who just wants a screen.

Where did they all go?

I can think of three reasons why they might not be selling too well;

  1. There are so many old monitors floating around from old desktop PCs (hidden in cupboards and attics) that people aren't interested in buying new ones.
  2. People just aren't interested in plugging their portable laptops in and turning them into 'desktop' computers.
  3. They are buying them all online.

The third one might be an issue — but if it were, then surely the same would be happening to laptops and TVs (and everything else in PC World/John Lewis' computer section.) So my guess is that the second one is the more important factor.

So, why aren't monitors interesting any more?

I think Desktop computers (which need a monitor, as opposed to laptops where monitors are optional extras) are only interesting to certain types of people; "power users" and "cost-cutters."

'Power Users' want heavy-duty CPUs and powerful machines, with big screens.

'Cost-cutters' just want a cheap computer – and I think the days of cheap computers being desktop machines are almost up. If 'cheap' is more important than 'good', then you will probably get more value out of a cheap tablet (that costs less than a low-end desktop PC and comes with its own screen) than a cheap PC.

But 'power users' want machines that, by their nature, are not portable/mobile. A powerful machine with a big screen takes up space, and needs a permanent home – on a desk. They want the biggest screen they can get (whether that is the biggest they can afford, or the biggest that will fit on their desk. If that means two screens, all the better.)

More importantly though, 'power users' want them on a desk, because that's where they want to do their work. They aren't looking to set up their machines for emails and Facebook. This is getting outside of the "computer" side of things and into the "human" side – that is, it's perfectly possible to run something like Logic Pro or Final Cut and do professional-grade video or audio editing on a reasonably powerful laptop computer, sitting on a sofa while watching TV. But nobody in their right mind would expect to get productive work done in that kind of environment. So that isn't the context that people are thinking about when setting up their machines.

Which ties into a broader theme about computer use in general. 15 years ago, computers were "work" devices – if you had one at home, it's job was probably to run MS Office and do "work" – moving numbers around spreadsheets, boxes around PowerPoint slides, and words into written documents. In other words, pretty much everyone who needed a computer was a 'power user'. Now, more people have computers, and their 'job' is more likely to be accessing information (web, email etc.) than doing anything creative.

Creative Computers

This also gets to the heart of a debate that's been going for the last few years around tablets – whether they are "creation" vs "consumption" devices.

The argument goes on one side that tablets are beefed-up mobile devices, not full-powered computers, so they are best suited for consumption — browsing the web, watching videos, reading eBooks etc. But if you want to get work done, then you need a creative machine — a 'proper' computer. Often, this argument is rounded up by pointing to the fact that you need a 'real' PC/Mac to work on Excel spreadsheets, Powerpoint slides, Photoshop images, desktop publishing software, video editing suites etc. etc.

The other side of the argument points at the range of apps available for the iPad (often from independant developers) that do let you draw, write, make music, videos etc. etc. And they point at the magazine covers drawn on an iPad, the music software that runs on tablets.

Apple are clearly pushing this angle — the TV advert for the iPhone showing a teenage boy making a family video, and the "Your Verse" iPad advert showing a range of photographers, musicians, writers, explorers, teachers, dancers, doctors etc. etc. all using their iPad to help them get their work done.

The argument seems to be that the limits aren't with the devices (at least, not the iPad), but with the software. Just because Adobe haven't got Photoshop on the iPad and Microsoft haven't made an iOS version of Excel, doesn't mean that you can't edit photos and spreadsheets on a tablet.

But there is a more fundamental point underlying all of this. Of all of the professionals shown getting stuff done with their iPads, not one of them is sitting down in an office, at a desk to do it.

The thing about a tablet device like an iPad – with the kind of apps that let you do particular "creative" jobs better than a PC – is that it is still a device better suited to consumption contexts than any laptop or desktop computer.

And – if the lack of availability of computer monitors is any indication – those 'creative' tasks that 'power users' want their computers for isn't really what the majority of computer users are interested in either. Consumers have made it clear over the last decade or so that they want laptops that they can use anywhere, rather than desktops that are tied to a desk. And I don't think on the whole that they are particularly interested in using their laptops at their desks either.

  1. Replacing a several-years-old 1280x1020 pixel display – slightly bigger than my 13" Macbook screen, but no wider in terms of actual pixel count.

  2. The new Mac Pro comes with a pair of high-end graphics cards, giving it more than enough power to drive a 4K screen – the question remaining is when/whether Apple will make a 4K display of their own, and whether/when it will be make its way into the iMac.