PC Makers, Learn From Car Makers: Use Model Years

PC vendors, are you tired of losing sales to the cool new tablets? Take a page from the auto industry's playbook and introduce model years.

Mike Feibus, Analyst, TechKnowledge Strategies

January 31, 2013

4 Min Read

Top 10 Tech Fails Of 2012

Top 10 Tech Fails Of 2012

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In my last column, I offered PC vendors some advice on how to position Windows 8 systems. That's not a miracle cure for solving PC players' woes. All that will do is pry from the industry's hand the pistol it's using to shoot itself in the foot. PC vendors will need to do more if they want to re-inject excitement into their products and get their business back on a growth trajectory.

Let me get right to the point: PC vendors need to incorporate model years into their product positioning. You know, like the automobile makers do. I know this isn't something they want to hear. (I know they don't want to hear it because I've been telling them for years. And they tell me that it isn't something they want to hear.)

I'll take my own advice here and call this my Model Year 2013 column. Years ago, long before the first iPad shipped, I suggested employing model years as a way to combat saturation in maturing markets. That's why automobile suppliers implemented model years some 90 years ago. Most people who wanted a car already had one. And a six-year-old vehicle could do 35 mph as well as a new one.

[ Wondering if the next Windows operating system is for you? Read Windows 8: Why I Won't Upgrade. ]

Model years helped remind consumers that their automobiles were aging. That, as well as styling and performance upgrades, gradually convinced consumers that it was time for a new car even though the old one still worked. The primary objection I hear from PC vendors is that model years would complicate manufacturing plans and inventory management up and down the supply chain. That used to be a valid argument. But it's not any more.

That's because they're already being forced to deal with those headaches. Consumers have been adjusting their purchasing behavior to account for the PCs' annual rollout schedule. For a few years now, consumers have held off buying last year's models just as PC vendors were trying to clear inventory to make way for new systems. So PC vendors are enduring all the pain of a model-year marketing model, but enjoying none of the benefit.

Smartphones and tablets -- the devices that are eating the PC's lunch -- exploit the model-year concept. Suppliers leverage their annual rollouts to generate pull from consumers, and consumers respond. PC vendors, meanwhile, continue to manage new releases like it's 1999.

There are positive pieces of the model-year mentality that are already in place, as well. Intel's Core lineup gets a facelift once a year, for example. And it's beginning to look as though the Ultrabook spec will be refreshed at a similar pace. If Microsoft would get on board, then PC vendors could really update the entire platform annually.

Another hesitation I hear is this: What if there's a delay? What if we can't deliver when it's time to roll out the new model year?

Good point. But there are ways to ease that burden. Intel, for example, releases a new generation of its Core-series processors every year. But the company tackles major architectural enhancements only every other year as part of what it calls its "tick-tock" cadence.

PC vendors could take on a lighter load than that. The auto makers execute a major overhaul only every four years. The changes to their offerings during the other three years are cosmetic by comparison. Call it a tick-tick-tick-tock schedule.

Although I'm recommending a model-year marketing mentality, there's really no need to differentiate by years. Distinguishing a new model with '4,' for example, instead of '2013' would leave some room for schedule slop. Microsoft, the unofficial schedule-slop champ, abandoned the year designation on Windows releases more than a decade ago and eventually settled on a generation numbering scheme. Combine that with the tick-tick-tick-tock concept, and you'd expect systems rolling out this summer to bundle Windows 8.1 followed by Windows 8.2 next year.

Remember, the point of all of this is to etch into the product a milestone, so people don't just think they have a Core i5-based PC, but a three-year-old Core i5 system. It will serve as a gentle reminder each time a new generation is released.

And if PC vendors don't fix the problem this year, then keep an eye out for my all-new Model Year 2014 column next winter.

Mike Feibus is principal analyst at TechKnowledge Strategies, a Scottsdale, Ariz., market research firm focusing on client technologies. You can reach him at [email protected].

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About the Author(s)

Mike Feibus

Analyst, TechKnowledge Strategies

Mike Feibus is principal analyst at TechKnowledge Strategies, a Scottsdale, Ariz., market strategy and analysis firm focusing on mobile ecosystems and client technologies. You can reach him at [email protected].

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