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.
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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.