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“The desktop computer is dead” and other myths

The desktop or laptop is now in decline, squeezed from one side by mobile platforms and from the other side by the cloud. As a developer of desktop software, I believe it is time to address the challenges to our viability. Is software for the desktop PC now the living dead, or zombieware?

Myth number 1: "The desktop is dead – my tablet can do it all"

It’s true. When most people use a PC, they use it for email, calendar, contacts, Web, social media and entertainment. All of these uses are great candidates to migrate to smart phones and tablets. Tablets are great for other things too, such as reading or playing games. The mobile computing market has exploded in the past 10 years. When I go on a trip, I often don't bring a laptop anymore because my tablet serves me just fine. Mobile computing has taken over. Demand for desktops is declining, replaced by mobile platforms.

But does a tablet work for analytics? Yes, in several important ways. Much of analytics involves scorecard metrics on a dashboard display, and the tablet is perfect for that. Even interactive analytics delivered to a mobile device works great. SAS Visual Analytics provides that. JMP Graph Builder for iPad delivers that for local data.

…And it’s false. But what if you want do deeper analytics, with models and large numbers of graphs? That doesn’t fit on a tablet. Mobile platforms are too small to hold all the data and software, and the display interface is small and not desktop-like. All of the interfaces are too simple – there is no right-click, no fine mouse-control. The file system is crude. The support environment is insufficient. Tablets are just not power tools for data analysis. While tablets have taken over for many of our personal computing needs, they have not taken over for analytics.

Myth number 2: “The desktop is dead – everything is in the cloud now”

It’s true. With the amazing emergence of high-speed Internet and cloud services, much that we used to do on individual computers now happens in the cloud. Services can be provided that are fast and very graphically interactive. Even through the Web, Ajax, Flash and HTML5 provide a rich interface to harness.

Information systems that used to be installed with great pain and effort on a home system can now be spun up quickly in a cloud service. Salesforce.com revolutionized customer information systems. Amazon EC2 and other cloud services can provide a rich set of software and services.

The cloud can also provide much deeper software implementations, making everything available without having to install anything. The cloud versions can be updated often with the latest fixes without any effort by the customer. The cloud has truly revolutionary potential.

…And it’s false. You already have a desktop computer, and probably a pretty powerful one. All you need is good software that installs easily. There is no need for a cloud service, one that you will have to pay for through the usage meter, often more than serving it yourself. The cloud reduces the installation burden associated with big IT systems, but personal analytics software does not have a high installation burden.

Desktop analytics software can provide a much richer and more interactive service, one that is free of usage charges.

Myth number 3: “The desktop is dead – you can’t do big data on the desktop”

It’s true. We live in an age of big data, when the data sets are measured in terabytes, and there are billions of rows. It is impractical to analyze data of this size on a desktop. You need a cluster of servers that can divide the work to be handled in parallel so that it takes only seconds, rather than hours or days to analyze.

Analytics is also more efficient when it is done close to where the data is; so if it is analytics from a database, putting the analytics close to the data speeds things up.

Analyzing big problems on a desktop may be too slow, and if the desktop depends on data being in memory, then you are limited to what fits in memory.

…And it’s false. Most analytic data sets fit just fine on a laptop. They are usually far less than a terabyte, usually less than a gigabyte. We also live in the golden age of desktops, when you can get a very powerful machine that is still inexpensive. You can get a laptop with 16-32 GB of memory and 4-8 CPU cores for a couple thousand dollars. Each additional 16 GB of memory costs less than $100.

Even big data can be done on a laptop if not too big. In my standard demo, I bring up a data set of all the airline flights over a 20-year period from the major US airlines. It is 123 million records. To load it takes 3-5 seconds from an SSD. To build a graph for it takes a few seconds for each drag-and-drop step. I can get a scatterplot of all the points in 10 seconds, and a regression with 65 parameters in 35 seconds. That is big data, and the PC is so capable that it is doing interactive analysis and graphics at this scale.

There are opportunities to use the desktop to be much faster yet. The graphics processing unit of the PC is actually much more powerful than the main CPUs, though most software doesn’t use it. Take the lowest end of the newest Mac Pro. It has 4 cores and 2,560 GPU cores and is rated at 4 Teraflops. The high-end Mac has 12 GB of graphics memory and 4,096 stream processors capable of churning out calculations at 7 Teraflops. This is supercomputer performance in desktop machines that cost only $2,000-$4,000 dollars.

If my problems change from a few gigabytes to a few terabytes, then I would be ready to give up on my laptop and switch to a server cluster. Most analytic problems are smaller than terabytes.

Myth number 4: “The desktop is dead – you don’t need it for good graphics”

It’s true. One of the best graphics presentations I have seen is Hans Rosling’s TED talk, and that was all done with Flash on the Web. SAS Visual Analytics proves that interactive graphics can be done easily through a Web page, and it is almost instantly interactive, even when you have billions of rows of data.

…And it’s false. But real analyses are often not simple dashboards. They are large interactive documents with many graphs and many tables. With big data, scatterplots can have millions of points, and you want to be able to select points interactively. The Web services are just not up to the task. Furthermore, the Web-delivered graphics services are not fully mature. Flash is good, but it is slowly disappearing because it isn’t supported on Apple mobile devices. HTML5/JavaScript works, but it still has yet to mature into a good environment to support a rich complex graphical system.

Dreams do come true

We live in a world of computing where dreams come true. The mainframe bows to the minicomputer. The minicomputer bows to the personal computer. The personal computer bows to the tablet and smart phone. It seems as if these will soon bow to the smart watch or smart glasses. But at each step along the way, some applications find their best home – and other applications as well as new applications find the more convenient and smaller home better.

Data analysis needs a great computing engine and a great large display. The desktop is probably going to remain the best home for rich interactive analytics. There will be other good places to do dashboard analytics, and better places to do massive problems of large complex analytic systems, close to databases. But the desktop remains a completely viable platform for analytics. So let’s keep our desktops and laptops, our PCs and Macs. They are amazingly good at what they do.

Note: This is part of a Big Statistics series of blog posts by John Sall. Read all of his Big Statistics posts.

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Robert Allison wrote:

I'm a "PC" kind of guy (I like having a big screen, a real keyboard, and a mouse), and this blog helps reassure me that my favorite platform isn't just "going away" :) I think smaller devices are ok for viewing dashboards and graphical reports, and even some interactive things such as drilling down, etc ... but when it comes to in-depth graphical data analysis, I much prefer a PC.


Bill wrote:

I agree that desktops are still valuable but the perspective above is still very narrow - I work in electronic and mechanical design so I want a very large screen, or preferably more than one, and fast 3D rendering. My brother in law does surface modelling for the interiors of luxury sports cars and again, he needs large screens and high performance - all things that are hard, if not impossible to do on a tablet.


Nick Andriopoulos wrote:

Though the above points are true, the overall meaning is far from it - desktop is not dead, but quickly becoming a niche, such as supercomputers were in an era mostly forgotten.

In the few short years that tablets have really been about (tablet presence was negligible until the original iPad, just 3 years ago), they have already reached a point where they're the "obvious" choice for most - PCs have been around for more than 50 years, an eternity in technology circles.

And while some business needs cannot be (easily) migrated over, will it really matter when PCs as we know them are in the single digit share of active devices (not in the too-far future)?


Buddy wrote:

I prefer a Desktop or Laptop to tablets and mobile computing, mainly because it generally does not respect your freedom. When you put your computing into the hands of others by using proprietary software and the cloud, you become a slave to those who run it. I for one will keep my data where I want it, and stay away from such things until free software alternatives arise. There are some things happening in the Android sector with Replicant. But for now I will continue to use Trisquel GNU/Linux on a laptop, because that is where I have the most freedom. Free as in Freedom, not Free Beer! Check out the Free Software Foundation for more info if you want to know what I'm talking about. FREE YOURSELF!


Alan B wrote:

As ever, it's a use-case thing. Some applications are perfect for the cloud. Many are not. Ignore the Kool-Aid evangelism from the people with vested interests in the cloud telling you otherwise.


Bernard Rynecki wrote:

An aside comment. Why is it always about SAS?? What happened to SPSS?? I studied both in graduate school and I prefered SPSS overwhelmingly. Am I the only one??


Arati Mejdal wrote:

JMP is a SAS product :)


Theodore Seeber wrote:

The day we can put a high resolution pico projector and a fine scale infrared motion recognition system into a watch, will be the day that server-mobile client takes over.

Not until then, because there is just no way to get the resolution needed to work with large documents out of a small screen.


Robert Allison wrote:

Oh, and when it comes to typing something (writing code, typing an email message, typing a comment in a blog, entering data, entering an id/password, etc) I *definitely* prefer having a real PC keyboard - typing on a virtual touch-screen keyboard, or using a small non-standard size physical keyboard slow me down tremendously.

And at my age (40-something) I would need reading glasses to read the small screens on smartphones and tablets ... whereas I can read a full-size computer screen just fine!


Ron S wrote:

Very good article, well balanced. Agree with the comment that the platform choice depends upon what you type of work you are doing.

Glad the article did not have the mantra of "cloud, cloud, cloud...". Using the cloud (i.e. an internet connection to somebody elses computing hardware -not magic) for some applications is an option, though it is certainly not a panacea.


PKJ wrote:

Amen. From one of the comment:

"desktop is not dead, but quickly becoming a niche"

"And while some business needs cannot be (easily) migrated over, will it really matter when PCs as we know them are in the single digit share of active devices (not in the too-far future)?"

It will matter to you if they're YOUR niche, and that's a question that software producers (like SAS) have to take seriously. Too much focus on "mobile first" or "responsive design" is not always a good thing.


Jim H wrote:

I think the comments here pretty well sum it up. Desktops for work, tablets and phones - social. I have no problem with that. Just don't dare try and take my keyboard, monitor and 3 TB away from my home.


Zachariah Cox wrote:

My two cents: I have some challenges with these arguments from myth #1:

Point: "But what if you want do deeper analytics, with models and large numbers of graphs? That doesnâ t fit on a tablet."

Counterpoint: In fact our VA iOS viewer has a larger data cap than its flex-based counterpart and outperforms it substantially in almost all cases. Realistically the LASR backend is the only platform big enough to handle some of the VA datasets anyway, and when it comes to the frontend mobile is the more capable.

Point: "The file system is crude. The support environment is insufficient."

Counterpoint: I'm not sure where this is coming from. My team has not run into more issues with mobile file systems or support environments than we have with any other host. Apple's devices even provide hardware encryption and sandboxing for free.

Point: "...the display interface is small and not desktop-like." "All of the interfaces are too simple â there is no right-click, no fine mouse-control."

Counterpoint: I actually mostly agree here. I have seen elegant touch interfaces but they are difficult to achieve. It is definitely true that for serious content creation, analysts need more screen space and are much more used to certain interaction paradigms. Perhaps that situation can be largely solved with an external monitor for their iPad and bluetooth user input devices.

Summary: In my opinion, there are two reasons content-creation of any kind is difficult on a mobile device: the screen is small and touch interactions are imprecise. That is not to say that I think tablets are the best way to analyze your data, only that their limitations are not necessarily technical as much as they are form-factor.


Nick Wang wrote:

The desktop computer will not be dead in the future, even the mainframes still are running at everywhere in the world: bank, insurance,stock...today,but the tablet and smart phone are more cheaper, more popular.


Warren wrote:

I am a confirmed desktop computer user. Mobile devices are just for that purpose, being on the go. Tablets are for data consumption, not data creation. The cloud is wonderful but does not provide customized summaries or special analysis. Finally, having a 24" to 40" monitor for graphics and multiple opened and linked documents can only be replicated from the desktop. Everything is so cheap these days, why not have multiple computers for multiple purposes. The cloud will keep them synchronized.


Murali wrote:

Great analysis of the various considerations - tablet vs. cloud; data storage & graphics considerations. I agree with John's assessments based on these considerations. And by his own note, he is also saying that tablets/mobile devices are growing up. There are two aspects that can change this calculus in the future: distributed data (private and public) and novel interfaces (3D, interactive and visual displays). With distributed data, perhaps the analytics can be best done in distributed fashion. And with novel interfaces, interactive and visual displays can benefit from cloud + mobile device combinations.


Athina wrote:

I know that 3 years have passed since the release of this post, but even know this myth is spreading around. In 2016 more devices have emerged like mini pcs inside intel's stick and tablets and phone get more powerful sometimes more than a low budget personal computer. But still nowadays they canot compete with a full power upgradable desktop pc. The disadvantages of mini computer of any kind are still too many to force desktop computer extinct.