PC and printers: Is the innovation gone?

Summary:With HP merging its PC and printer units, we ask our debaters: Have these products been commoditized beyond innovation?

Christopher Dawson

Christopher Dawson

Look to the cloud

or

Too soon to tell

Lawrence Dignan

Lawrence Dignan

Best Argument: Too soon to tell

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

Look to the cloud

Chris Dawson: Do you still print? Really? Well knock it off. That's why we have tablets. And smartphones. And websites. And iBooks. And plenty of other things that aren't dead trees.

What kind of computer do you have? Does it matter? No, probably not, as long as it's fast enough to run whatever software you need and the screen is big enough to differentiate it from that tablet in your messenger bag. Unless you’re a Mac user, in which case it matters to you.

Computers are going to keep getting smaller and faster. Printers will find niche applications like 3D printing and CAM or printing adorable little QR code stickers out of your phone, but most of that doesn't really count as innovation. Computers and all the things we attach to them get smaller. Whatever. If you want innovation, look to the cloud. Everything else is just I/O.

Innovation will always happen

Larry Dignan: Take two commoditized products---PCs and printers---argue that they are maxed out on innovation. Call for a post PC-printer era. Sound like a genius. It's just way too formula.

The tech reality is quite different. We thought mainframes were tapped out on the innovation. There's an argument that server demand will only go to the cloud. And it wasn't all that long ago when you could find someone to ask what on earth would you do with 1 TB of storage.

Innovation will always happen in PCs and printers, but take a different form. There will be innovation. Handheld printers are one possibility. PCs will get smaller, lighter and faster as well as do more. The real innovation may be a PC embedded into your brain.

In other words, it's too early to say innovation is gone for PCs and printers---especially when you consider that technologies that have been long declared dead are still improving.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks!

    Thanks, everyone. Closing arguments are March 28 and I'll decide who wins on March 29th.

    Posted by Josh Gingold

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Last question

    I have two printers in my house... both well used... and three more in boxes in my garage. Proof of the commoditization! How many printers do each of you own right now?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Two

    One at my office, one at my house. They're both all-in-ones, though, and the scanners see far more use (unprinting?) than the printing functions. Prints are either for school reports when the kids have backwards teachers who won't accept an email or when Grandma needs a picture of a kid but can't figure out that newfangled Facebook thing.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    One

    More than one printer seems absurd to me. Yes your garage (and possibly you) are a bit off kilter. If mobile printers can work you'll see them as add ons to iPads and smartphones. Then there may be more.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    PC "water heaters"

    For years, we've heard about the concept of PCs as another appliance in the average home such as the water heater. Might that in fact be the most important role of PCs in the future, as a home- or office-based information management system where everything is coordinated?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Not to sound like a broken record, but...

    I think the cloud will take this role. Web-based applications will manage content and push it out to a wide variety of personal computing devices. We already see this with iTunes on multiple computers and Apple devices, with Google's Play offerings, with Dropbox, with Eyefi, with Amazon/Kindle, etc. Some time ago, Microsoft Home Server. Where's that product now?

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    Indeed

    I see the PC essentially becoming a home server and a hub of home operations. It will also be used for other tasks that are more sporadic such as writing reports, printing etc. Most content consumption will happen on tablets. The PC will have some role.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Public printers

    Can you ever imagine open printing devices in public places so anyone can print on an as-needed basis?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Why?

    Open, ubiquitous WiFI and sharing with those around you via location-based services, definitely, but what would you need to print at the mall or at Starbucks? If I take a great picture of my friends at a restaurant, they're automatically tagged, the photo hits our social networks, and replicates to their phones, we've arrived. When I need to give a presentation for a client and it automatically downloads to my phone because I'm at that client's location and I project it from the microprojector in said phone, we've arrived. When I can print at a public kiosk, I've taken a step back in time.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    We have trials today

    Ricoh and a few others have tried this if I recall. It's an interesting trend that could catch on. Today the pilots haven't had a groundswell just yet. For many people these services would be good enough. You still have to print from time to time.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Mobile printers?

    It could be argued that all the different types of devices we now use every day are actually the result of ongoing innovations in personal computing but what are the most important factors right now that may be driving innovation for printing and imaging technologies?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Social

    As Larry pointed out, most of what we used to print (pictures, documents, etc.) just gets shared socially. Better printing from social and cloud services would be useful for some, but I'd actually rather see tighter integration between our various screens with our computing devices, making it easier, for example, to display the movie from my phone on my TV (or just blast it over to Grandma's TV instead of having to print out pictures or burn a DVD for her).

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    Imaging improves...but

    Imaging technologies are improving, but mostly on the corporate side via paperless systems. The real innovation in the printer market may be 3D printers that can go for what an inkjet costs today. That's what I would love to see. Physical printers for the masses.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Smartphones

    How have smartphones hastened the decline of PCs and printers and how might manufacturers adapt, if possible, to take advantage?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Better printing from the cloud and devices

    Printing from your phone remains a kludgy proposition at best. There's some room here to improve, especially when Grandma really wants to see pictures of the grandkids that you took on your phone (which likely has a better camera than that DSLR you bought a year ago). The advent of superphones, as Canonical's recent announcements around dual-booting Ubuntu and Android for true desktop experience from your phone suggests, means that PCs have become relics. Most people don't need them - phones and tablets provide great portability and the innovation around using them as desktop replacements has relegated them to school computer labs and office cubicles.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    Mobile has stolen PC thunder

    Smartphones and tablets have curbed PC usage to some degree and definitely hurt printers. Facebook photos is your printer today in many respects. HP could create handheld printers that could work with any device. We'll have to figure out how the paper would be fed though. But an iPhone to pocket printer connection could be interesting.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What's old is new again

    It seems to me that PCs are far from finished in terms of innovation but what does that look like? Cloud terminals, perhaps?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Screens, screens, and more screens

    Everything should be a "PC" - your TV, your phone, your tablet, your desktop (with the full experience streamed from the cloud so you never lose 1000 pictures again because of a crashed hard drive), whatever. I think Chromebooks are getting close, but need to be polished like Apple products. Connected TVs have a long ways to go, but the digital living room is the heart of the home - that big screen should be very attractive for developers. On the enterprise side, if I was a CTO, I'd never want to buy anything more than a dumb terminal again and save my resources (human and $$) for managing powerful, redundant access to business productivity and social tools with strong workflows and low costs.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    Hybrids

    PCs will get smaller, faster and always have. Cloud terminals have some promise, but the Chromebook hasn't really gone anywhere. I think the hybrid tablet/ultrabook has a lot of promise in the immediate future.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Printing innovation

    The key to printing is efficiency. Aren't lower costs of printing and less wasted papered considered innovations and are there other printing advances that might be considered innovative?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Been there, done that

    The key to reducing printing costs is not to print. It's 2012 - has anyone heard of tablets, e-readers, and the Internet? That said, HP has already squeezed most of what they can out of improved efficiency and management, both on the consumer and enterprise sides of printing. They already offer great all-in-one devices that make wonderful photos as well as picture perfect essays. And they already have solid document management and high-efficiency lasers on the enterprise side. They've arrived. Now let's stop printing.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    3D

    I still think printing to go may be an option and 3D printing could be mass marketed. Of course, less paper and ink costs are innovations that help the wallet.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Printers can be improved

    I still can't imagine a world without printed pages. Are the printers we use today adequate for what's expected and how might printing be improved in the future?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    You might not, but I can

    So can the folks at Adobe. And Apple. I'm sure we'll see incremental improvements in printer efficiency, and possibly cost reductions in solid ink and other color technologies, perhaps with even more sustainable consumables, but innovation? No, what we have in printer tech is just fine and hasn't really evolved all that much recently.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    Adequate for the foreseeable future

    HP and others have pushed for smarter printers. I for one like my printers dumb and the only thing I really want it to do is connect easily via Wi-Fi. I'd like cheaper ink too, but that innovation could hurt the business for printer makers (much to my chagrin).

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The cloud

    What about the cloud? What role might it play in the potential for continued innovation in PCs and printing?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    The cloud will...

    (and already almost has) kill printing. The potential for personal computing devices to become nothing more than thin clients with robust entertainment and business productivity value with the cloud doing all of the heavy lifting is where we can see some real innovation. Who wouldn't want awesome games, great movies, interactive television, and business desktops delivered right to any cheap, commodity screen that sits on your desk, in your living room, or that you hold in your hands?

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    Cloud as complement

    PCs and printers will use the cloud to offload more computing tasks. In theory the cloud can be used to crunch massive data sets with PC-ish specs. There's a lot of potential for innovation in PCs and printers. It's going to be HP's task to connect PCs and printers in new ways and then use the cloud to be the icing on the innovation cake.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    A trend?

    Is it possible that HP may in fact be at the front of a trend that other manufactures will consider or is this just one company trying to survive in an increasingly competitive market?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    I think they're actually behind the curve

    Like I said, Dell is doing this quite well. They sell entire ecosystems now, with all the cheap hardware you need to access their outsourced IT and cloud-based services. Yes, this is a trend. Businesses need hardware, so sell hardware to businesses while differentiating with the services you can offer to make that hardware useful. It's a trend, but it's not rocket science and it's happening everywhere.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    Combination only for HP

    That remains to be seen. If HP can take a mashup of PCs and printers and create something new then it will look ahead of the curve. However, if HP just keeps status quo then it'll look like a mostly cost cutting move. No other company had leading printer and PC businesses.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    But PCs and printers are different businesses

    Printers are still necessary but PCs are increasing less essential. Does it make sense to lump the two together?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Absolutely!

    Enterprises need to buy lots of commodity PC hardware and most are still buying lasers for a variety of printing needs. Most consumers have an inkjet somewhere in their house and one or more computers. Stick your mainstream commodity products together and find what marketing and management synergies you can in the two market segments. There should be some costs savings and they can be sold as packages or as bundled accessories.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    Sort of

    Printers are necessary but less so in my view. The use of paper is declining and print management typically means less printing and therefore less ink. HP's move to put the two units together make sense on a macro level. After all both products are commodities mostly aimed at the consumer. Where it doesn't make sense is the micro level. PCs and printers have completely different models and selling cycles.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    PC innovations

    What else would you like to see from PCs that might be considered innovative?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    I'd rather see innovation in the cloud

    And, of course, we are, big time. That said, though, innovation in battery life and connectivity on the notebook side, innovation in power consumption and management on the desktop side, and innovation in work-anywhere-anytime sync between all devices (BYOD, company-purchased, or otherwise) for employees. For consumers, let's push the envelope on graphics performance and storage to make media servers, gaming consoles, etc., converge into great experiences.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    Beat Apple

    Virtual keyboards would be one. More touch integration and a form factor that Apple hasn't thought of first. Integrated projectors. Kinect-ish innovation. For me it's simple: Do something Apple hasn't thought of yet.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Exit strategy?

    Could it also be that HP may be strategically consolidating its PC and printer businesses for a possible sale of the combined business as opposed to any sort of drive to innovate?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Yes, but...

    There's still money to be made on commodity hardware, especially in the enterprise and especially when it can be bundled with value-added services. I don't think they're going to be spinning this off. I think we'll just see them offering more and more services to the enterprise customers who come to them for PCs, printers, servers, monitors, etc. Dell is doing this pretty successfully and even IBM has a partner in Lenovo through which they can sell lots of hardware in addition to their much higher margin services.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    Possible

    I think that's a definite possibility, but problem is that HP may not want to dish off a highly profitable business with more than $60 billion in revenue.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    HP consolidation

    Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman says she consolidating her company???s PC and printer businesses to ???provide the best in customer-focused innovation and operational efficiency??? but isn???t the move really intended to cut costs and is it possible to cut costs and be innovative?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    How is cost cutting innovation?

    Yes, of course there should be reductions in redundancy in a big company like HP. If you're selling primarily to the same audience (enterprises), then combine sales and marketing teams and sell more stuff with fewer people. It's not like too many businesses need a hard sell to go buy PCs and printers. This isn't innovation, just a reasonable business move.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    A fine line

    That's HP's line to walk, but I'd say it's cost cutting. HP's argument is that it can cut costs and redeploy those savings elsewhere. If I'm a betting man I expect those funds to make it to the enterprise side of the business over the consumer focused printing and PC units.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The commoditization thing again

    Might we be entering an era, due primarily to commoditization, when leased hardware and managed services make more sense from a business perspective?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    We've been there for a while

    Why buy products that will be outdated in 2-3 years? Make them operating expenses and refresh as needed. Obviously the printers will have longer lifecycles, but the PCs just need to sit on the same desks or in the same bags day after day. And enterprises need lots of them. Consumers are still buying, too, since the price is right, and the idea of BYOD means that many consumers will need to be obtaining PCs for work and home and periodically refreshing. Leasing models are our friends.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    Rent a printer sure, rent a PC. No way

    Managed services are key to the printing business. I doubt we'll rent PCs anytime soon although there have been models attempted. The rent vs. buy argument has been waged in corporations forever.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Game over, really?

    Let???s get this straight, the game isn???t completely over yet and there is still a lot of room for PC and printer innovation, right?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    In niches, sure...

    But in mainstream business and consumer tech? What else is there? As I said in my opening argument, this is all just I/O. I don't even think my mom prints any more and she certainly has no use for high-end workstations. She just needs to get online, just like we all do. Nope, glorified internet kiosks don't count as innovative.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    Game not over

    I don't think the game is over. PC innovation is highly likely, but the printer faces more challenges. What's unclear to me is the path PC and printer innovation will take. However, that isn't all that surprising. We didn't see Facebook or the iPad coming either. Mainframes are still innovative so it's safe to assume that PCs and printers will develop too.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Greetings from San Francisco

    Chris and Larry, are you ready to begin?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Yes, yes I am...

    Ready to meet my fate.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    Ready here

    Chris is doomed

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

  • Great Debate Moderator

    First and most obvious question

    Is commoditization a bad thing?

    Posted by Josh Gingold

    Not at all

    Prices go down, standardization goes up, everyone gets what they need. The latest gadgetry and techno whiz bang are always fun, but when it comes down to it, commodity products make it easy to outfit businesses and consumers with the tech they need to live their lives and ge their jobs done.

    Christopher Dawson

    I am for Look to the cloud

    I love commoditization!

    Commoditization is the natural progression in any industry. It's safe to say that PCs and printers today are commodities. However, commodities can also show innovation. Case in point: Dyson vacuum cleaners. Here's an engineering effort that took a tired product category and innovated. The PC and printer can be improved even thought they are commodity by any measure.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Too soon to tell

Closing Statements

Cause of death: existential crisis

Christopher Dawson

Innovation in the PC and printer space died of an existential crisis. Outside of some specific verticals, it no longer needed to live. This isn't to say that the market is dead, but rather already has efficient, small, inexpensive, fast computers (whether laptop or desktop) and resource-saving printers that meet the needs of most buyers. There is plenty of money to be made selling commodity hardware; HP's recent consolidation of PC and printer units is just another validation of this commodity approach. After all, how much marketing do you need to convince businesses to buy inexpensive PCs and printers?

Where things get interesting is in the cloud. HP's move, much like the shifts we've seen at Dell and IBM, is an attempt to leverage all of that commodity hardware to connect buyers to value-added services. The innovation is here, and, long-term, so is the real money.
 

Incentives to innovate

Lawrence Dignan

The funny thing about innovation is you never really see it coming. The PC and printer markets have become commoditized, but the innovation isn't dead. Multiple outcomes are possible because there's still a lot of money to be made in emerging markets for both PCs and printers. That reality will drive incentives to innovate. It's too early to write off PC and printer innovation. 

 

PCs and printers still vital

Josh Gingold

I would love to tell you that this was a difficult decision, but it really wasn’t.  As much as I enjoy Chris’s argument, I believe he thinks of things as they ought to be as opposed to the reality.  Both PCs and printers are just as vital as they’ve ever been and will continue to evolve to meet the changing demands of the market -- which is arguably the essence of innovation.

In contrast to Chris’s idealism, Larry is reliably pragmatic; and in this particular case he did a nice job of reminding us that the “funny thing about innovation is you never really see it coming.”  In other words, we don’t know what we don’t know.  He’s right.  It’s just way too soon to declare an end to PC and printer innovation.

Clearly most of this audience agrees that it’s too soon to tell if PC and printer innovation is gone and I would venture that it’s unlikely as well, at least in the foreseeable future.  Nevertheless, to those of you who agree with Chris, I say keep dreaming.  That is after all the fountainhead of big thinking which almost always leads to, you guessed it, innovation.
 

Topics: Great Debate

About

Josh Gingold is the Managing Editor of Business and Technology Research Libraries for CBS Interactive with primary responsibility for the presentation of key research and commentary through a combination of blogs, white papers, and Webcasts. Josh's past experiences include a variety of editorial and production assignments for CNBC, CNET... Full Bio

Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.