You don't use a rotary phone anymore, or clean your clothes with a washboard. Before long, the personal computer may join those bygone devices on the list of obsolete household equipment.
It's no secret that the market for PCs is declining, while smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices take the world by storm. But PCs may be fading faster than expected. New reports from research firms International Data Corp. and Gartner show double-digit declines in first-quarter shipments of PCs, compared with a year ago. The steep drop in sales comes as the economy is getting stronger, not weaker, and it signals the worst showing for PC sales since the first IBM desktop machine debuted in 1981.
The PC decline is obviously a challenge for hardware makers such as Dell, HP, Intel and AMD, and for Microsoft, whose software inhabits the majority of PCs. But the transformation of computing will also crown some new technology titans able to capture the market for mobile devices and whatever comes next. Here are some of the most prominent winners:
Mobile device makers. This one's a no-brainer. It's obvious that companies such as Apple, Samsung, Asus and Amazon stand to gain from the decline of PCs, since they build the tablets and smartphones that are displacing traditional computers.
Online storage sites. The cloud is exploding, for good reason: Since more people are relying on mobile devices with limited memory, they need someplace to store their photos, videos, music and ordinary documents. Cloud purveyors range from big companies such as Apple, Amazon and Microsoft to startups such as Box, Dropbox and JustCloud. Expect consolidation in this segment as smaller firms merge and bigger operators gobble up the leading startups.
App developers. Computer users have gotten used to limited-use apps in place of do-everything software programs, which has spawned a whole new industry. Gartner estimates that the "app economy," as the Wall Street Journal recently described it, will grow from about $15 billion today to $75 billion by 2016. Already there are at least 1.5 million apps available for mobile devices.
Software providers. One reason for the sharp drop in PC sales is that the capabilities of older machines are good enough for most users, according to Simon Bisson of ZDNet. So there's often no need for an upgrade until an older machines conks out. There is a need, however, for the latest software, which is an opportunity for Microsoft to keep generating new versions of Windows that will breathe new life into old machines. Operating systems for mobile devices, meanwhile, will continue to be highly profitable for Apple and Google.
Cellular providers. Verizon and AT&T aren't popular among consumers, yet they control the cellular networks through which the mobile revolution is taking place.
Online entertainment providers. Another booming field is streaming video offered by Netflix, Amazon and, increasingly, TV networks themselves through sites such as Hulu. The ability to watch TV on a tablet or even smartphone spells trouble for the traditional network and cable industry, which for the most part requires you to sit in front of a TV and pay a relatively high bundled fee instead of a la carte prices for the entertainment you choose.
Whoever builds the best streaming TV. The next big entertainment war will take place in your living room, with the victor being whoever develops the most appealing TV capable of streaming programs of your choice directly from the Web or even from a cellular network. Giants such as Apple are clearly interested, yet they're getting tough competition from pipsqueaks such as Roku. It's almost like the dawn of the PC era back in 1981. Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.