If the personal computer is less personal than the device in your pocket — then what’s it role?

Joey Fung  

November 11, 2010

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While smartphones might be the poster child for the present world’s highly-connected lifestyle, clearly the PC, referring to both desktops and laptops, is the device responsible for the evolution to this point. The desktop was conceived as a work tool primarily for content creation, and only with the growth of the web has it become a device for streaming video, reading the news, finding directions or social networking. These everyday tasks do not require powerful, dedicated machines, and as our other devices increasingly satisfy those needs, the PC as we know it will once again be relegated to work tasks.

At the moment, the desktop is the household’s central hub for information, and it is the go-to device for any task requiring computing power. Sure, some people may use their mobile device to find the answer to a question or check email, but generally only because the desktop isn’t readily available. Why it isn’t available brings up the sharing aspect of devices. Mobile devices are highly personal – they serve as our direct line of communication, store our login credentials for quick access, and have a form factor ideally suited to one user. Despite its name, the personal computer is very often a shared device, but unless it’s presenting content to an audience, such as playing music or streaming video, using a desktop or laptop is still a personal experience.

How this experience differs from a mobile device is not simply the extra power and form factor, but in how the environment conspires to distract the user. A mobile user is easily distracted and influenced by the outside world – the location, the circumstances for needing the device, and the responsibility of being connected at all times. The desktop user is distracted and influenced not by the outside world, but by all the other applications and notifications within the PC environment. Users are highly engaged with their desktops, but rarely with one application. Apple’s previous lack of multi-tasking on the iPhone and iPad may have been an attempt to keep users engaged with their applications.

The main reason for smartphones is that the desktop can’t be everywhere, and while mobile and other devices become the primary choice for everyday tasks, the PC won’t go anywhere. While its interface isn’t the most intuitive, it is still the most efficient for composing email, searching the web, and creating work ranging from spreadsheets to video-editing. The power and storage may go into the cloud, but the keyboard and mouse will stay as our hub for information.

We need to design for multiple platforms, but we shouldn’t diminish the desktop experience just to support the lowest common denominator. When we make the most of the desktop’s power and interface, it can offer the richest, most engaging user experience. It should appeal to an engaged user. The desktop user has made a conscious decision to sit down and accomplish something; they weren’t notified like a phone call or a text message. The desktop experience needs to change from multi-tasking of applications and processes, to multiple applications supporting one process with integrated experiences. Not only that, as an information hub and workhorse, it needs to support our other devices so that we’re not repeating experiences from one device to another, but continuing them.