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The desktop PC: Can Microsoft revive it?

Global sales of PCs are in decline. Microsoft hopes a version that's part tablet, part desktop can take advantage of a shift toward mobile devices.

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Terry Myerson, executive vice president of Microsoft's Windows and Devices Group, speaks at a Microsoft event in New York City, Wednesday.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

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Microsoft is expected to introduce its attempt at reimagining the desktop computer on Wednesday, when it unveils its new Surface all-in-one PC at an event in New York.

The tech behemoth’s new product, which will complement the lines of tablets and laptops released under its Surface brand, could feature a new 3D paint app, a stylus, and a hinged display that allows the monitor to become a touch screen by laying it flat on a desk, wrote the Verge this week. If successful, the design could steer PC manufacturers in a new direction.

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The move comes as PC sales continue their downward slide, supplanted by the Internet of Things – new, internet-compatible, sometimes interconnected devices. This month, technology research firm Gartner reported that worldwide shipments had declined 5.7 percent in the third quarter of this year, the eighth consecutive quarter of decline.

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The trend is not a new one, as Wired wrote in 2015:

“[W]hatever the specifics of any given quarter, the trend line is still clear: it’s going down. Which points to the same consistent truth: mobile devices have become the dominant computing platform." 

Mikako Kitagawa, a principal analyst at Gartner, cited longer lifetimes for existing PCs and weak consumer demand in emerging markets.

“The PC is not a high priority device for the majority of consumers,” he said then, “so they do not feel the need to upgrade their PCs as often as they used to. Some may never decide to upgrade to a PC again.”

"In emerging markets, PC penetration is low, but consumers are not keen to own PCs. Consumers in emerging markets primarily use smartphones or phablets for their computing needs, and they don't find the need to use a PC as much as consumers in mature markets,” he added.

Some companies that have long depended on PCs – like Intel, which supplies the microprocessors that power them – are starting to shift their production in other directions, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Jeff Ward-Bailey reported in January:

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During the CES 2016 technology show earlier this month, Intel showed off chips that can power smart skateboards, drones, and even clothes, including a dress that changed shape in response to the wearer’s body temperature.

“We think this an emerging sector that can sells hundreds of millions of these devices – the pieces of silicon,” Intel chief executive officer Brian Krzanich told USA Today’s Elizabeth Weise. "If every kid under the age of 30 … wants that information, over time that’s a lot of devices when you look across the world.”

Microsoft’s Wednesday presentation may also offer details on two software updates to Windows 10, including changes that could allow users to control and customize gestures on a trackpad.

The company’s Surface tablets took a hit to their image this week when the head coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, went on a several-minute rant about the inefficiency of the Surface Pro, which Microsoft pays the NFL $400 million to use. He’s one of several NFL players and coaches filmed doing damage to the devices, according to the Guardian.

“I’m going to stick with pictures as several of our other coaches do as well because there just isn’t enough consistency in the performance of the tablets, so I just can’t take it anymore,” he said.