Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
5/3/2013
08:55 PM
Michael Endler
Michael Endler
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4 Reasons PC Market Won't Rebound

PCs aren't dead, but laptops and desktops have seen their best days.

The traditional PC is far from dead, but its continued decline is inexorable. The reason? Choice.

After the PC became a household item, its status went unchallenged for years. Yes, there were innovations: laptops came along, computers gradually got smaller, high-speed Wi-Fi replaced tedious cables and dial-up modems. But upgrades were driven by Moore's Law and the commoditization of components, not changes in the basic premise.

PCs are still more powerful than competing computing devices, and they're essential for tasks that none of these alternatives can manage. But smartphones and tablets are powerful in their own right. PCs might be fixtures in the workplace, but for years, most of the time users spent in front of those screens was dedicated to surfing the Internet, reading email or watching videos. Mobile devices handle these -- the most common of user tasks -- more conveniently and intuitively than their PC forefathers, and they represent the first time that consumers have had a fundamental choice in their computing options; that is, the ability to purchase a device that doesn't look like the machines at work.

The bring-your-own-device (BYOD) phenomenon is a result of this choice. At first, new gadgets simply provided another way to read and watch digital content, leaving the PC's dominance as a production tool unchallenged. But choice permitted workers and businesses to come at productivity from new angles, and to develop workflows suited for the new devices. PCs still rule the enterprise empire, but where there was something akin to a technological hegemony only a few years ago, there's now a growing number of disruptions in the making.

[ HTC's One is another promising Android phone to watch. Read For HTC, The One Can't Come Soon Enough. ]

That's why the traditional PC will never rebound. The tablet explosion isn't an end in and of itself; it's the first phase of a larger shift in computing. Not convinced? Consider the following four facts:

1. All-in-ones are nice -- but the multi-screen experience is here to stay.

There's clearly demand for a device that does it all -- something like the Surface Pro, or for some users, the iPad. But as Forrester analyst JP Gownder recently noted, even the upstart mobile market is becoming increasingly fragmented and difficult to define. Some of this has to do with user preference for one operating system over another. Cost is another factor. But there's also mounting evidence that both consumers and employees are happy to own multiple devices. The reason? Users like to choose the best option -- or combination of options -- for a given task or situation.

To some extent, this trend causes cannibalization; that the PC market has stalled while the tablet market soars attests to as much. And as much as people might want to use multiple devices, there are obviously limits to how much any given person or business is able to spend. But in the course of a single day, an average person might use a smartphone for email and light reading, a tablet for games or to watch Hulu, and a traditional computer for "serious" work.

The variety of devices will only increase as new phablets and an anticipated wave of 8-inch Windows 8 tablets hits the market. Mobile devices are not only cheaper than new PCs but also more likely -- at least for now -- to offer attractive generation-over-generation enhancements. This has led many users to upgrade their mobile devices at regular intervals, a trend that's likely to continue. Conventional computers face a different reality; they will still have a big place, but their diminished role and higher prices will give consumers less incentive to frequently replace aging models. PCs will endure in some form as part of a multi-screen ecosystem, but their best days are behind them.

2. Tablets will continue to encroach on the PC's territory.

The extent to which new devices can replace PCs is limited. Adobe, for example, is preparing to bring Lightroom, one of its most popular products for photographers, to iOS. But the iPad Mini's screen is too small to be ideally suited to the heavy photo-editing for which the program is known. Can the software retain its granular functionality when translated to a touch-based interface? The vast majority of legacy tasks face these kinds of questions, and in many cases, such as programming or document creation, a mouse and keyboard make more sense than a touchscreen and finger.

At the same time, although many business people use tablets for mostly email or on-the-go access to shared documents, tablets also have allowed doctors to speed up turnarounds between patients, enabled field workers go where no laptop can venture, and retail to do business faster. PCs will remain indispensable in the workplace for the foreseeable future, but their erosion will continue.

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TreeInMyCube
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TreeInMyCube,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/6/2013 | 6:07:20 PM
re: 4 Reasons PC Market Won't Rebound
As I read this, I was reminded of some of the points Christensen made in "The Innovator's Dilemma" back in the early days of the Internet. Tablets and smartphones are no good for certain tasks which PC makers believe are important -- at least, initially. Listening to their customers, PC makers added larger, more beautiful displays; bigger hard disks, and disk+SSD combos; greater performance from their video cards. Along comes the disruptive innovation, the tablet, to address a different and as-yet-unmet need. Over time, the tablets improve and certain PC options begin to die off.
Perhaps the most important analogy - comparison with mainframes and servers. At one point, mainframes were the only game in town, and the PC revolution brought a new balance of power for doing business computing. At one point, desktop systems were the only game in town, and the tablet/smartphone revolution will bring a new balance of power for doing personal computing. I agree, Michael -- the high water mark has been reached, but PC systems will not fully disappear even as mainframes and multi-CPU servers have not fully disappeared.
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
5/6/2013 | 7:58:03 PM
re: 4 Reasons PC Market Won't Rebound
I own desktops, laptops, and tablets. From my experience the ones that will drop off are the laptops. Anything that is lightweight and requires no data entry whatsoever is done on a tablet, everything else on a beefy desktop. I keep a laptop around as it comes in handy to update wireless devices and for the off chance than all three of my desktops kick the bucket at the same time.
fyrelab
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fyrelab,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/6/2013 | 8:56:50 PM
re: 4 Reasons PC Market Won't Rebound
The dumb'ed down public finally found games they can play like Angry Idiot Birds and Cowpatty Farmville while they text in their cars. They couldn't play Everquest or WoW which require brains and tenacity along with state-of-the art video cards that cost as much as a tablet "pc."

Sigh, this is the future. For me, I will continue to use desktops with fast processors and video cards that use the best technology available. I see kids absorbed with their 4'' screen phones totally absorbed in their social media, and I also see a generation of nitwits, lol. I'm venting. Each to their own, but I choose high-tech over the bubble gum products.
jqb
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jqb,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/6/2013 | 9:51:02 PM
re: 4 Reasons PC Market Won't Rebound
If you want to sound authoritative, don't quote the potheads at Gartner as your source...
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
5/6/2013 | 10:03:39 PM
re: 4 Reasons PC Market Won't Rebound
Did Forrester say something in this instance that you find particularly questionable? The argument that the tablet market has fragmented seems pretty reasonable to me, even if one disagrees with Forrester analysts in general.

Michael Endler, IW Associate Editor
jqb
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jqb,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/6/2013 | 11:15:29 PM
re: 4 Reasons PC Market Won't Rebound
Michael, first off it's Gartner, and yes their statement that "half of all companies will implement mandatory BYOD by 2017" is ludicrous, like most of Gartner's predictions. I find Gartner to be "wave surfers" who are more often dead wrong than even close. That's why I no longer subscribe to their services.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
5/6/2013 | 11:34:39 PM
re: 4 Reasons PC Market Won't Rebound
Thanks for the reply. Sorry, I'm running around Interop, and I typed in the comment in a moment of distraction. You said Gartner, so I'm not sure why my brain said Forrester. Anyway, the BYOD figure is bullish, to be sure, and I don't have much basis for agreeing or disagreeing with any particular figure-- except that 2017 will have a lot of companies that offer BYOD, and a lot of companies that don't.

I don't think the Gartner reference changes the overall argument; the argument doesn't rely on one set of data or another, and the existence of BYOD on any kind of large scale reinforces what I'm writing about. But analysts aren't any more infallible than the rest of us, and they sometimes prove themselves more so. So I appreciate that you're skeptical about them as sources.

Out of curiosity, have you found some of the other research firms more helpful?

- Michael
jqb
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jqb,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/7/2013 | 1:51:25 AM
re: 4 Reasons PC Market Won't Rebound
No, we don't bother with any of them. We now prefer to just do our own research to the extent we can, and find it more usable and actionable than the wild prognostications we had gotten from the "research firms".
For example, just take the word "mandatory" out of the sentence in question, and it becomes 75% more believable. It's a bit of a stretch to believe half of all companies will have a formal BYOD program of any sort by 2017, to add "mandatory" takes it out of plausible right into laughable.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
5/7/2013 | 5:30:07 PM
re: 4 Reasons PC Market Won't Rebound
I find the 'mandatory" part of this just as debatable as you do. i find the MS attention to mini tablets, however, quite instructive about the future of the PC market.

Laurianne McLaughlin
InformationWeek
Terabyte Net
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Terabyte Net,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/23/2013 | 2:56:01 PM
re: 4 Reasons PC Market Won't Rebound
Michael, research firms put out data they can sell. It doesn't matter if they're IT research firms or political research firms. The public is too stupid to think for themselves anymore so they just believe what Gartner, Harris, or even Informationweek says is the case. If you're going to cite 3rd party "research" firms you need to cite several that have come to the same conclusion as well as how they came to their conclusions. Citing one is just like making something up and not checking Snopes first.
rdecker926
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rdecker926,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/8/2013 | 9:21:00 PM
re: 4 Reasons PC Market Won't Rebound
The PC is not going away anytime soon. However, other "personal computing" devices are appearing that are augmenting the tools that the current worker uses to accomplish their everyday tasks.Tablets are great for meetings but don't handle those huge spreadsheets, databases or large graphics files very well. Smartphones are great communication tools but I've yet to see one able to produce even the smallest CADD project.

You can't build a track of houses with a hand ax, no, you need to use the right tool for the right job. A smartphone is the right tool for some, and for others, it ain't! So, as much as you would like to see it happen, and as many times as I have read about the demise of the PC, it isn't going away anytime soon......
Server Market Splitsville
Server Market Splitsville
Just because the server market's in the doldrums doesn't mean innovation has ceased. Far from it -- server technology is enjoying the biggest renaissance since the dawn of x86 systems. But the primary driver is now service providers, not enterprises.
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