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 New figures show that PCs are being railroaded out of the market by the rise of worker-friendly tablets, bolstered by practical keyboards riding the smartphone wave. As Dell and others struggle, how much life will be left in the PC market by the end of the decade?

Beneath the Surface of Tablets' Utility

While Microsoft's first bespoke Surface device might not have set sales records, the sight of a prominent tablet with a firmly-attached keyboard likely sent shivers down the spines of PC makers. While other tablets have had keyboard peripherals before, many were considered user-unfriendly or ruined that slim aesthetic. 

With PC sales in the doldrums, and box builders like Dell in big trouble, peripheral makers are trying to make the tablet a little more like a PC, increasing its utility with near-proper keyboards, saving us from having to lug around that notebook, even an Ultrabook, and reducing the need for a desktop PC to hardcore gamers and the monster-storage demands of media workers. 

The latest arrival on the scene is Belkin offering a new $100 iPad wireless keyboard. With an alloy base it is just 6.4mm thick, offering 160 hours of use between battery charges. The keyboard case weighs only 17 ounces to preserve the iPad's lightweight design and offers three viewing angles, plus a neat lip to push the sound from the iPad's speaker to the fore.  

More Nails in the Coffin

While tablet users who need to do some typing might only be a small percentage of the user base, the unstoppable rise of the format, shown in the latest IDC numbers, suggest that the PC is losing the sales war, with tablets and smartphones picking up the pace. 

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Source: IDC's Worldwide Smart Connected Device Tracker Forecast Data, February 28, 2013    

The numbers suggest that by 2017, tablet sales will match all PC sales, while still rising as PC sales are predicted to continue to fall. Smartphones might rule the roost with sales in the billions, but if you consider all those tablet owners who decide they don't need a new (of first PC) thanks to a decent tablet and the open spaces of the cloud-based office, then the reasons for buying a computer become less and less.

In emerging markets, the figures are even worse for PC makers, with a generation of users growing up never needing to own a traditional computer. Naturally, there are developers and coders who will always like a decent-size keyboard, and an army of workers who's desk will look incomplete without a decent-sized device. But, increasingly the focus is moving toward the tablet as a machine of work and not just for the consumption of content. 

With smartwatches on the way that will tie into the mobile ecosystems, we could soon see (once the novelty wears off and business apps evolve) an environment where workers are increasingly removed from their traditional Windows PC environment, and no matter how hard Microsoft tries with Windows 8 update projects like Blue, clawing back users from the mobile and cloud may not be possible. 

While technology moves so fast that 2014 is hard enough to predict, yet alone 2020, are we really seeing the end of the need for a classic PC? If so, will Microsoft's mighty ecosystem be flexible enough to compete with an onslaught of cheap cloud services filling all but the most rigid of user and business needs?