RANCHO PALOS VERDES, Calif. -- Don't sell the PC short. That was one of the main messages Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) CEO Steve Ballmer tried to convey during an onstage interview here at the AllThingsD "D8" conference.
It may not have been a topic Ballmer thought he would be discussing, but the issue came to the fore after comments made a day earlier by Apple CEO Steve Jobs at the same conference.
Jobs likened PCs and Macs to trucks that were the vehicle of choice during agrarian times but became less mainstream as manufacturing and other industries emerged and cars became the vehicle of choice. Following that analogy, Jobs said mobile devices like Apple's iPad are on track to become the "cars" of computing.
Ballmer was having none of it. "There may be a reason they call them 'Mac' trucks, but Windows machines won't be trucks," he quipped.
"Nothing people do on a PC is going to get less relevant tomorrow," added Ballmer. "There will exist a general-purpose device to do everything you want. The PC as we know it will continue to morph form factors. The real question is what you do with it."
The Microsoft CEO also said the company is committed to developing software for a range of devices powered by Windows and had been an early proponent of tablets, though none of the Windows-powered units have had the immediate success of the iPad, which has chalked up sales of more than two million units since its release in April. Ballmer said the iPad is a new PC form factor, but not necessarily a new category of device.
Microsoft and cloud computing
Microsoft's latest version of Office is accessible from the cloud, but Ballmer said that doesn't necessarily mean a trend away from relatively powerful client devices, including desktops, notebooks, tablets and even smartphones.
"The experiences people want will almost always have a relatively smart processor with a reasonable amount of storage and reasonably good graphics," he said. "It's all about getting smarter on the client."
Ballmer said he expects the PC sales to continue growing for years to come. "PCs will look different next year and the year after. They'll get smaller and lighter. Some will have keyboards and some won't. Sometimes the user interface will look like your desktop, but sometimes it will look like what we've done in Windows Media Center," he said.
On the cloud computing front, Microsoft is facing competition from a number of players, including Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), which offers a suite of cloud-based applications. Microsoft is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to gain a bigger piece of the search market dominated by Google.
Ballmer acknowledged Google is "a very large behemoth," but added "it takes one to know one."
David Needle is West Coast bureau chief for InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals. Larry Magid is a technology analyst for CBS News and a contributing writer for InternetNews.com.