PC OEMs are clutching at straws because there's nothing else left to do

PC OEMs are clutching at straws because there's nothing else left to do

Summary: As PC sales contract, OEMs have been reduced to focusing on gimmicks such as notebooks that transform into tablets, and tablets that transform into notebooks because there's nowhere else left to take the PC.

TOPICS: Mobility, PCs

So the new system announcements coming from Dell, Asus and HP ahead of Computex feel like a repeat of what the PC industry has been has been doing for the last couple of years. I'm not surprised, because I don't think there's much innovation left in the PC industry.

To understand where we are now we need to know a little history.

First came the PC. Then that line branched off into desktops and notebooks. The desktop systems competed with each other on power, storage, and screen size, while notebooks were more focused on battery life and portability. This is a model that worked for years, with the OEMs drip-feeding better products into the market on a regular basis, and people snapping up better and faster PCs every two or three years as new applications or new versions of Windows rendered their old PC obsolete.

People's desire for more speed or storage or battery life drove the PC economy. It was about evolution, not revolution. Everyone was happy.

There was the odd attempt at bridging the gap between desktops and notebooks that resulted in niche products, but nothing made it into the mainstream because on the whole people were happy with the desktop/notebook divide. It made sense to people. 

Then came the tablet.

This is an area where PC OEMs and Microsoft have been dabbling in – unsuccessfully I should add – for over a decade. While the idea itself certainly had – and still has – merit, it was a step in the direction of specialization that just refused to catch on, and a sort of tech-oriented natural selection kept tablets confined to the shallow end of the silicon gene pool. There's no single reason why they never caught on, but I think that price and usability were key factors.

Then came the iPad.

Why did the iPad succeed where tablet PCs had floundered? Because Apple never marketed it as a PC, thus side-stepping all the past failures and instead choosing to create a new market – or at least one that looked new enough to consumers. Since its release in 2010, Apple has sold more than 200 million iPads, a figure that removes all doubt as to whether the device has been a hit.

The launch of the iPad coincided with a precipitous fall in PC sales. Whether the two things are related or not is hard to tell, but my view is that desktops and notebooks had come to a point – thanks in part to adherence to Moore's law – where their working lifespan had increased from the two to three years that it had been previously to five or six years, stretching out the upgrade cycle. However, the overall effect of the drop in sales was to send PC OEMs scrabbling for new twists on the old PC. And given the success of the iPad, trying to take advantage of consumer and enterprise interest in tablets was an obvious choice.

So OEMs started to make tablets... and notebooks that transformed into tablets, and tablets that transformed into notebooks. Many of these devices were marketed under exotic names that meant nothing to consumers and did little more than add to the confusion. Most of it leaves me dazed and confused, and I've been tracking the PC industry for more than two decades.

Microsoft also added to the confusion by releasing Windows RT. It was called Windows, and it looked like Windows, but it didn't quack like Windows. Specifically, it didn't run applications that regular PC users associated with Windows. Calling this platform 'Windows' was a fail of such epic proportions that I can't understand how a company like Microsoft allowed it to happen. The message as to what Windows RT was capable of doing was so badly communicated that I saw big-name PC outlets trying to upsell software for Windows RT devices that the platform couldn't run.

Now things are getting even crazier as OEMs start pushing devices that can not only change from a notebook to a tablet, but that can also run Windows and Android. Try as I might, I just can't see an upside to this. It's a gimmick that does nothing other than foist security and administration headaches on the owner – or poor IT admins that have to accommodate these devices in a BYOD situation.

Even Microsoft's flagship Surface tablet leaves me feeling a little confused and uncertain. When people ask me if they need to buy the Type Cover keyboard or can they get away without it – it is, after all, $130 – I never know what to say. After all, the Surface Pro 3 is a tablet, and the idea of buying a tablet is to be able to break free from being shackled to a keyboard, but I also know that driving Windows with a finger or stylus isn't the best experience either.

This is not an uncertainty that I ever had with the iPad.

So, what should PC OEMs be doing? Well, what I'd rather see them do is go back to making desktop and notebook PCs. While devices such as ultrabooks have a niche market at best, and given that PC margins are razor thin, OEMs don't have much wriggle room to either innovate or go on an all-out marketing offensive (which is why most seem to be relying on Intel to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to pushing the Ultrabook brand). Also, it looks like the mobile PC market is already close to saturation, and shipments are already falling.

I wonder what PC OEMs will start doing if the bottom falls out of this market too?

See also:

Topics: Mobility, PCs

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  • Surface 3

    You absolutely need the type cover (or in a pinch the touch cover) with a Surface. If you don't buy the aforementioned cover you are spending upwards of $1000 for a device whose functionality can be broadly replicated on a$350.00 Android tablet, and whose touch app ecosystem is far more limited. Add the type cover and you've got a very interesting and useful hybrid device with an innovative form factor and the ability to function as a true Windows laptop replacement or a tablet, in a pinch.

    I think that with the Surface 3, Microsoft has finally come to the conclusion that Surface isn't a device that's going to replace your iPad, but does open up many possibilities and new directions and functionality for Windows itself.
    • Almost

      I agree with the conclusion but for different reasons. The Surface also a good device that's worth it's money if you use it with any keyboard&mouse at the desk (docking station or usb hub).

      I find that I often use the onscreen keyboard while on the move, with the keyboard cover folded back, doing stuff I couldn't do with an Android/iOS tablet. Because I wouldn't want to use a 1000$ machine without a cover, I have the keyboard cover anyway.

      So in my opinion, it is a very good idea to get the keyboard cover because you need a cover anyway, and because having a keyboard and touchpad on the move adds some value - not because having a keyboard is in any way necessary.
      • Don't see the contorted logic

        "The Surface (is) also a good device that's worth it's money if you use it with any keyboard&mouse at the desk (docking station or usb hub)."

        How about just buying desktop or a notebook/ultrabook, which are both superior and cheaper, for use on the desk.

        There are probably usage scenarios where the SP3 is the best choice, but for most users, the SP3 is an awkward abomination that is not really good at anything, at an outrageous price.

        Apple was not afraid to cannibalize its desktop/notebook market when they introduced the iPad. They realized that if they did not do it, somebody else would. MS on the other hand has been trying to ram Windows down peoples' throats on every device for over a decade, with comparably disastrous results.

        The personal computing world has changed, but MS is still desperately trying to still sell Windows to everyone on everything.
        • Logic

          "How about just buying desktop or a notebook/ultrabook, which are both superior and cheaper, for use on the desk."

          I didn't say you use it exclusively at the desk. Maybe I could have been clearer. In the case of a desktop, that isn't portable at all. In case of an ultrabook that isn't cheaper than a Surface, and it's less portable.

          "There are probably usage scenarios where the SP3 is the best choice, but for most users, the SP3 is an awkward abomination that is not really good at anything, at an outrageous price."

          Depending on the definition of "most users", "outrageous price", and "not really good at anything", I think I can agree with this statement, even if you swap "SP3" for any other product ever in existence.
        • Instead of thinking about what it's bad at...

          ... you should be looking at its strengths.

          For one, desktops aren't portable, and you can't use a notebook as a tablet.

          If you're worried about price, then you aren't the target market for this. There's a premium for features and quality, after all.

          This isn't a machine for your average Joe, he'll be perfectly content with a $300 Walmart computer from Costco.

          College students, artists, and any other person who needs portability, power, and a pen would see this as a god-send.

          Most tablets make compromises on power and pen, whereas ultrabooks lack pens and portability.

          Besides, Apple's philosophy doesn't fit everybody's needs.

          If you flipped around your perspective, you'll see what Apple is "desperately" trying to sell you multiple devices and lock you into their closed ecosystem.

          Sometimes, people simply want to get work done. Compromising functionality between two different devices is pretty jarring.
          • a $300 Walmart computer from Costco?

            What are you smoking?

            Besides Costco sells pretty high end stuff.

            You know - if you really want a keyboard there are already blu tooth versions that work on iPads and Androids - and even the iPads with keyboard cost significantly less.

            If you can't even undercut Apples bloated prices - something is wrong.

            The only real advantage is being able to use Microsoft software - and few people use home computers and tablets for office work. QuickOffice and OpenOffice are enough.

            At work - well I sit at a desk and prefer the bigger screens and don't need mobility. Surface seems to be a great tool for folks who need to earn their living in coffee shops and aren't "cool" enough to own an iPad.
          • LOL!

            "The only real advantage is being able to use Microsoft software - and few people use home computers and tablets for office work. QuickOffice and OpenOffice are enough.:The only real advantage is being able to use Microsoft software - and few people use home computers and tablets for office work. QuickOffice and OpenOffice are enough."

            Good God the stupidity reigns supreme on this site. QuickOffice and OpenOffice are garbage compared to Office. Office is the gold standard in enterprise.
          • Expansion is the key

            The home PC has room for expansion - you can typically add a second [and third] hard drive, maybe throw in a second graphics card, throw a card in a PCI slot.

            LAptops have - less. There's typically a few USB [or Lightning] ports, VGA / DVI / HDMI output, headphones and mike. You MAY be able to replace the hard drive, or upgrade the memory.

            Tablets, like the iPad, have... what? Headphone socket, combination charger & USB port. You can't even change a dead battery without performing surgery.

            Logically, find the place where tablets fall short and market the living daylights out of it. That place, to me, is expansion. You want a bigger battery? Don't buy an external one. Take the back plate off, swap in a larger battery - combined with a different back plate.
            The biggest potential, however, is: plug in boards. Whether it's a docking station connector, or FPGA FMC connector, or just USB Master capable of driving an Arduino, the ability to add hardware is key to the survival of the PC / Laptop - in whatever form it finally takes.
      • I think you've missed the point

        The Surface 3 is a marketing wave go genius marred only by the execution.

        It's a notebook.

        But its $150 dollars cheaper and a couple of hundred grams lighter than it would be if it was a notebook.

        Not because it's cheaper or lighter, but because you can sell the keyboard as a separate optional necessity, so you need it, but Microsoft don't need to include it in the price or weight.

        Just like the original Surface was a stroke of Genius because they would mix the statistics of the two and describe one product with the capabilities of the Pro and the footprint of the RT.

        It's all about marketing. But it doesn't improve the product any to compromise it so badly.

        At the end of the day you get a tablet that weighs twice what it needs to weigh, consumes too much power, and has little software that is really optimised for touch.

        Henry 3 Dogg
    • A litte off-topic but I'll respond anyway.

      All tablets - from $199 for brand X (Android) to $499+ (iPad Air) can access the cloud for personal productivity. Name brands generally support RDP (remote desktop) and most support access to virtualization services such Citrix. That said, the Surface 2 (starting at $449) comes closest to providing a 100% compatible Windows interface on an ARM platform.

      If you do not care about Windows, you can choose any of these products and not go wrong but if you need remote access to Windows resources, the Surface 2 (@ $449) is a great choice.

      The Surface Pro 3 is more than that. It truly is a PC replacement with the power to take your legacy applications with you. That said, if you are not going to replace your iPad, you might as well get a traditional $350 windows notebook as a companion to your iPad/Adroid tablet.
      M Wagner
  • Just produce a decent laptop at a reasonable price and market it!

    It works for Apple.

    You don't need hybrid like gimmicks, what they're failing at is marketing.
    • What is being offered is called choice

      There are plenty of laptops being offered at a wide range of performances and price points. There is certainly a laptop out there that fits exactly what you want.

      Hybrids are just one more choice for users. Depending on the device, they offer a complete experience with one form factor (either tablet or notebook) and in addition to that they also offer extended functionality of another form factor.

      Also I wouldn't call Apples laptop prices reasonable. Interestingly enough, if you look at the timelime of Windows8 and hybrids entering the market you will notice Apple slashing prices on their line of laptops a few times.
      • Those cheap $ 350 laptops

        Are hunks of garbage. I just spent about 1/2 a day getting their laptop working properly and it was an awful experience. I honestly don't know why people even buy those things. Pure junk. It was slow, bulky, cheap feeling, etc. etc. Any real laptop is going to cost around $900 or more, anything much below that and you are just buying junk that Enterrprise customers probably won't touch.
    • WHAT? Apple's "decent laptop" is the MacBook Air and costs $899 and up.

      For $899 you can buy a TWO "decent laptops" from Dell. To suggest that the MacBook Air is reasonably priced but the Surface Pro 3 is not is just silly!

      You have to look honestly at your needs (and your WANTS) to make a reasonable choice but your choice is not going to be everyone's choice. For instance, I don't like Mac OS. That does not make it a bad OS. It just doesn't meet my needs. Same with iOS.
      M Wagner
      • Enterprise customers

        Don't buy the cheap consumer grade products for several reasons. Performance and reliability. Large customers don't look at how to save $100 here or there on a box, they need something that's going to perform and not require lots of repairs and technical support as these are tools for their employees and it costs far more to support a computer than any difference in the cost of the initial purchase. There was an article not too long ago that surveyed large enterprise customers that were buying Apple laptops and they found that the support costs were far less than the Windows equivalent which offset any price difference in the product itself. Large companies have to look at those costs instead of just penny pinching to get a cheaper piece of hardware. Having choices is great, but having too many is overrated. If most of the choices are different levels of cheap crap, then most of those choices are just bad choices.
        • PC OEMs are clutching at straws because there's nothing else left to do

          "There was an article not too long ago that surveyed large enterprise customers that were buying Apple laptops and they found that the support costs were far less than the Windows equivalent..."
          Yet wintel cheap/unreliable craps are in more enterprises than apple. How is that?
    • A lot of people would argue...

      ...that Apple's laptops are not reasonably priced, or are at least cost more money than most people want to commit to a laptop.
    • Microsoft doesn't know how to so things simple.

      And they certainly don't know marketing. Instead marketing this 12" Surface as a notebook with touch capabilities, they are marketing it as a tablet device ala iPad. All this does is confuses the buying public more. They are already confused with this Windows 8 metro UI, last thing they need is a product that doesn't know its true identity.

      The millions of consumers purchasing modern tablets are not looking for large 12" screen x86 hybrid PCs running Windows. They are looking for simplicity, with the majority of use being consumption. As the iPad proved, and as a result countless other iPad competitors like Amazon
      Kindle - users are perfectly content with modern tablets being an extension of their current smart phone OS.

      Microsoft should have marketed this 12" Surface as a next Gen PC notebook (xBook) with detachable screens, not as a tablet device. Consumers would have understood that, they don't understand hybrids. A product that's not quite a tablet and not quite a notebook but yet is labeled a tablet 'device' is confusing.
  • all-in-ones

    They need to bring down the price on all-in-ones somehow...

    Going with the train of though I see espoused on many a tech article that pcs are becoming the 'hub' machine for home users, the all-in-one form factor is quite a good one - given it is a desktop pc just without the extra bulk of the desktop.

    Basically from there they could market desktops for the average users with the all-in-ones and consign traditional desktops to the niche 'workstation' market for those of us who need extra grunt or capacity or screens or memory because of doing development/cad/media related work.

    On the portables side of the business push laptops as the dirt cheap workhorse for businesses, ultrabooks for the high mobility or high spec requirement types and the hybrid/tablet market for the average punter who wants a pc device to go. In this the Surface (especially at the lower i3 spec and price) is a good option - use it without the touch/type cover for consumption which it is quite good and smack on the touch/type cover for creation - after all that is exactly what happens with ipads/android tablets just they don't have the same capabilities to run software that the ix based tablets do.

    Essentially copy the car industry model where companies have a workhorse brand of cars and slightly more swish range and then a luxury range.
    • Everybody wants lower prices. The problem is that ...

      ... miniaturization raises the cost to produce these devices. HDD costs around $0.05 per GB these days. SSD still costs around $0.50 per GB.

      The industry want you to move to the cloud so they can charge you an annual fee to store your data, or to run their programs. SaaS (software as a service) is the way things are moving and it will soon cost you more in the short run to do it any other way.

      Think about it - 50 years ago (1964) every family of four had 1 telephone. The "breadwinner" (usually just one) had a second phone at work. And, there was a pay phone on every street corner.

      Today, that family of four has four smartphones. Both "breadwinners" have a phone number at work (maybe 2). Often, both parents and both kids have a tablet and/or a PC.
      M Wagner