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7/22/2013
09:43 AM
Mike Feibus
Mike Feibus
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Don't Give Up On The PC

The factors hurting the PC market now may not be Intel's fault, but they are Intel's problem. Fix them and we'll talk.

With each passing quarter, the unrelenting beat of bad news for the PC market has been taking on an increasingly ominous tenor, like the staccato violins that presage calamity in film. No one is saying that disaster is imminent. But it sure as hell feels like devastation is closer than it was.

Gartner and IDC cued up the duuuh-DUM for this quarter. They each released their preliminary estimates for how bad the just-ended period turned out to be. And late last week, Intel kicked off earnings season with its second-quarter results -- more evidence that there's no end in sight for the PC market doldrums.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, presiding over his first earnings call, emphasized that he's putting a "much, much stronger effort on Atom," the family of processors designed to power smartphones and tablets.

[ Will investors bite at the opportunity to take Dell private? Read Michael Dell Faces Biggest Week Of His Career. ]

That's a sensible direction to take things, without a doubt. But how to re-distribute priorities? That depends on how attractive the smartphone and tablet markets are, of course. It also depends on how bad the PC market's prospects are. And for that, we've got nothing concrete on which to build an answer.

The reason: We don't yet know what the PC market is capable of achieving in the "new normal," a phrase I've heard -- and uttered -- more in the last three years than in all my days leading up to that. Anything that anyone (myself included) has told you about what lies in store for the PC is purely theoretical. We won't get any real indication of what the future holds for the PC in the tablet era until the ecosystem is able to put its best foot forward.

To be sure, today's PCs are far better than the state of the art three years ago, when Apple launched the original iPad. For example, the industry now understands that typical consumers value responsiveness more than raw performance. Metaphorically speaking, Average Joe doesn't care if you can bench press 500 pounds because his usual workload is only 50 pounds. That's light enough that his scrawny little tablet can do it -- instantaneously. If the PC can't do it just as fast, it doesn't matter how much more muscle mass it has. Average Joe will think it's not up to the task. He'll think it's pokey.

Due in large part to Intel's Ultrabook initiative, today's systems are far more responsive. They're also far more attractive. And they last far longer on a charge. These are all things that make today's PCs far more attractive than circa 2010 models.

Compelling as they are, though, these new PCs are still hobbling up to the starting gate -- just as they did last season. I've covered the Windows handicap in previous columns, so I won't re-launch that rant (even though I really want to). If I were Krzanich, I'd tackle a few more industry-wide shortcomings as quickly as possible. Because until they're resolved, we really won't have any indication of how the PC will fare in the tablet era -- which means Krzanich can't know how much investment the traditional PC market deserves going forward.

Here's what I'd tackle first:

Full Disclosure. You can't tell buyers to go out and buy Haswell, for example, and then make it difficult for buyers to figure out which systems are built around the latest processor. PC makers are loath to call out the new stuff because they're petrified that they won't be able to unload the old stuff. So they pretend to have these special sales, and unsuspecting consumers snap up last year's models off their hands.

That tactic works in the short term. But over time, it's building a buying population that doesn't trust what retailers are telling them -- and that's part of what's holding back sales today. I have to give credit to Apple (did I just say that?) for setting the bar by naming phones and tablets with generational designations. Buyers instantly know what they're looking at, so the trendsetters can grab an iPad 4 while bargain hunters snag the iPad 3s.

It should be that obvious to consumers. But the only way to identify a system built around Haswell, Intel's fourth-generation Core processor, is by poring over the specs. (Hint: look at the first digit of the processor part number.) It's almost as arcane as reading the ingredients panel on a food package to see whether it's healthy for you.

Desktop Pinch to Zoom. The PC market message this selling season is, in a word: touch. And yet we still do most of our work on the Windows desktop, which can be downright hostile to touch. That freezes some prospective buyers, who quickly discover that many desktop controls are just too small and tightly packed to tap reliably. At the very least, a pervasive desktop pinch-to-zoom would tide us over until Microsoft decides to address the issue.

(Tip for MS Office developers: Put some real estate between "Block Sender" and "Never Block Sender" on the "Junk" email pull-down. I'm tired of inadvertently granting lifetime access to my Inbox to members of the Nigerian royal family.)

Windows Easy Transfer. Microsoft's tool is much improved over previous attempts. But it's rare for WET to perform a flawless end-to-end transfer. Too often, it fudges an app setting, or misses another app entirely. That's not a big deal for this tech-savvy crowd to overcome. But it is for the buyers that PC makers can't lure back into the store because they remember the lost weekend -- the days they sunk into transferring their stuff the last time they bought a PC. A successful transfer tool not only has to be easy to use, it also has to be bulletproof. Otherwise, consumers will end up with another nightmare seared into their memory -- a nightmare that PC makers will pay for when they can't get them back when this system is ready for pasture.

Did you notice that the first point addresses a shortcoming at retailers, e-tailers and PC OEMs, and the next two target Windows flaws? These issues -- as with much of what's ailing the PC market these days -- are not Intel's doing.

So why should the company endeavor to fix them? Because, as I'm fond of saying, they may not be Intel's fault. But they are Intel's problem.

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Lorna Garey
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Lorna Garey,
User Rank: Author
7/22/2013 | 3:08:04 PM
re: Don't Give Up On The PC
Transparency is a critical point, but lack thereof is also a time-honored selling ploy -- just try comparing mattresses, carpets or HDTVs across a few vendors. I think it's going to take a bit more pain before PC makers bite that particular bullet.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
7/22/2013 | 4:49:16 PM
re: Don't Give Up On The PC
You're right, PCs do look and perform better than ever (thinner, lighter, faster) but it's mostly lost on consumers. As the article points out, consumers don't know what they're getting with a "new" ultrabook from Lenovo, HP, Acer etc etc. They don't want to pore over specs or research the latest chip-sets and they're suspicious that retailers are pushing the latest and greatest PCs. It's much easier to understand iPad 2, 3, 4.
Cara Latham
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Cara Latham,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/22/2013 | 5:03:52 PM
re: Don't Give Up On The PC
I wonder whether a change-up in marketing strategies (other than in direct-to-consumer advertising) would help in educating potential consumers to these features (thinner, faster, etc.).
rradina
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rradina,
User Rank: Ninja
7/22/2013 | 6:57:55 PM
re: Don't Give Up On The PC
I completely agree regarding transparency. I recently received a marketing brochure from a PC OEM. They were advertising a "slick looking" tablet running Win8. Even after skimming the brochure cover to cover, I could not determine whether the tablet was running Win8 RT or Win8 Pro, let alone what processor or how much free storage was available. They might have provided it via their web site but I tossed the brochure in the trash. I just felt like they were hiding something stinky and was very different than what they used to provide (complete specs, HDD size, processor, speed, RAM, ports, etc).
I disagree that this isn't partially Intel's fault. They have long gamed the system with a dizzying array of processors that makes it difficult for the consumer to determine exactly what they are getting (2nd gen, 3rd gen, core, not-core, hyperthreading, virtual capabilities, graphics speed...) Unless you go to Intel's site and compare spec for spec and actually have an idea of how an i-3, i-5 and i-7 differ and knowledge of Intel's fab generations, it's impossible for the average consumer to know whether a $499 laptop is better or worse than a $549 laptop. Casual tech people think the $549 is better but when you realize the $499 has a core I-5 and the 549 has a core i-3 with a bigger hard drive and more RAM, buying the best model takes on the smell of a cigar-smoking, Stetsoned, huge gold class-ringed, Mr. T starter-set gold chained, Tom Selleck chested used car salesman!
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
7/22/2013 | 7:57:36 PM
re: Don't Give Up On The PC
We're nearing the bottom of a trough on PCs in my opinion. Once the tablet fervor is sated, consumers and businesses will eventually replace PCs, but they'll replace fewer of them, they'll take longer to do it, and the won't move until they see that the bugs are worked out. Windows 8's reputation is not inspiring a lot of upgrades. Aren't Apple laptops and (the few) remaining desktops also suffering compared to tablets?
bbatest1n
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bbatest1n,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/22/2013 | 10:32:09 PM
re: Don't Give Up On The PC
I have a Nexus 7, Hitec Android phone, an IPhone 4, an IPhone 5, a HP Pavilion, a custom gaming rig and a Sony Vaio laptop at home (and there is only 2 of us!). The HP and Vaio still get the most workout with the Nexus used for reading and travelling. The PCs will always be needed in business but because they are getting more reliable, the replacement cycle is longer and nobody I know (and I am in IT with 30+ years) really wants Win8, especially for work. I'm hoping that we can get to the place where whatever I pick up will know me and get me the stuff I need/want without copying, Dropbox, emailing to myself, etc. This constant upgrade/update hell is not going to fly in the future with most people as most of us can make due with a Focus rather than an Audi, hence Apple's success because they just work (most of the time).
MFeibus
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MFeibus,
User Rank: Strategist
7/23/2013 | 12:43:08 AM
re: Don't Give Up On The PC
I told lots of consumers last year to wait until the summer to buy a new PC so they could get Ivy Bridge. Same advice for Haswell this year. Even armed with that, though, several came back with from the store with a last-generation system!
moarsauce123
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moarsauce123,
User Rank: Ninja
7/23/2013 | 11:40:46 AM
re: Don't Give Up On The PC
Generally agree. Most of my computing is done on PCs. I use a tablet for watching videos and games. Anything that requires more input, especially text input, is a flop on a tablet.
As far as Apple goes, I have quite different experience. Most of the time it doesn't just work (just look at how needlessly complicated it is to install apps on OS X) and if it works it does so in the least obvious way and entirely different than anything else. OS X is like IE6 among browsers. Yea, it works, but it really does suck and requires everything to be specially crafted.

As far as Intel goes, their biggest issue is price. Their stuff is just way too expensive. AMD provides the same processing power at a fraction of the price. What works in Intel's favor is the microsoftish exclusive deals with OEMs that push competitors out of the market.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
7/23/2013 | 4:45:57 PM
re: Don't Give Up On The PC
Apple's laptops and desktops have suffered, though relative to many Windows OEMs, Apple has weathered the storm relatively well. Apple generally gets better margins out of its hardware than other computers-makers, which probably softens the blow somewhat for Apple, and increases the margin between what Apple has suffered and what Windows OEMs have suffered.

I agree, though. Consumers and businesses are still going to buy millions of PCs-- but they'll go longer between purchases, purchase fewer units than in the past, etc.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
7/23/2013 | 4:56:37 PM
re: Don't Give Up On The PC
The transparency issue is important. I think at least some OEMs fail to talk clearly about Haswell and other factors because they're still also trying to sell non-Haswell hardware. The Surface Pro would benefit from Haswell's GPU firepower, for instance, but the device would REALLY benefit from Haswell's battery life improvements. But if you ask Microsoft (or at least a lot of people at Microsoft) about this, you're likely to hear them attempt to side-step the issue.

The pinch-to-zoom issue is interesting too. I really like the Apple implementation of this feature, because it's mostly done through a trackpad, which keeps my hands in their "ready" position at the keyboard. For some activities, it's fine to touch the screen, but for others, I find that I disrupt my workflow when I lift my hands from the keyboard/mouse to the screen. Some upcoming Ultrabooks are supposed to have better trackpads, which should give Windows 8 laptop users the best of both worlds-- touch functions via both the touchscreen AND the trackpad.
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