The real reason for the PC sales plunge: The era of "good enough" computing

The real reason for the PC sales plunge: The era of "good enough" computing

Summary: We're not buying new PCs. Is it Windows 8's fault? The answer is yes, but not in the way you might be expecting.

TOPICS: PCs, Windows 8

IDC's PC sales numbers show a dramatic fall, but they're not the whole story.

Before we blame one thing we need to take a much more nuanced view and look at the last decade of the IT world. After all, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

We're at an interesting inflexion point in the IT industry where innovation is moving away from desktop PC hardware into software and into the server and up to the cloud.

The truth is quite simple: PCs are lasting longer, they're not getting measurably faster, and software is getting better. Why do you need to buy a new PC when you can get better performance with a software upgrade on your old hardware?

If I was to put a finger on the point where everything changed, where Windows stopped being the driver for PC sales, I’d have to point at Windows Vista.

That was the point where Microsoft and the PC OEMs stopped trusting each other. Microsoft made a bet on PC hardware and capabilities, and the PC industry pulled the rug out from under it, forcing the mess that was Vista Basic on users as they tried to sell cheap PCs with old graphics hardware.

That meant Microsoft had to change. It couldn't make that same bet on hardware anymore. It didn't trust OEMs to deliver on the promises the silicon vendors were making (and if we look at the initial Windows 8 hardware, it's pretty clear it was right to make that decision). So it made the software better instead.

New releases of Windows would need fewer resources, offer better performance, and (particularly important to mobile users) use less power.

So we shouldn't have been surprised when Windows 7 came along, bringing all that better performance on the same hardware. There wasn't a reason to buy a new PC for a new Windows any more.

We could just buy a cheap upgrade and get more life from our PCs. My Vista-era desktop systems got a performance bump because the software got better, taking advantage of the older hardware. I didn't need new PCs, I didn't even need a new graphics card.

I only bought my current PC last year because a hardware failure fried the Vista machine's motherboard. If I hadn't had a hardware failure I suspect I'd still be using that PC today.

The new machine has the same hard disks, even the same graphics card, using the same multi-monitor setup as that original Vista-era machine. It wasn't any faster, but it got another performance bump when I upgraded it to Windows 8 last summer. We even saw significant improvements on XP-era test hardware.

So yes, that means Windows 8 is one thing that's to blame for a slow-down in PC sales. You don't need a new PC to see a benefit from it, especially when you're getting a 10 percent speed bump over Windows 7 running on Vista-era hardware, and an extra hour or so battery life on a three year old laptop.

A cheap upgrade download and your old PC gets a new lease of life. Why do you need to spend several hundred pounds or dollars for extra performance when it comes with an operating system upgrade for a fraction of the cost?

So if our software gets better on older hardware, so what about all that new hardware?

First we need to look at the trends that drive the PC industry. Like all consumer industries it has to respond to customer needs, and those customer demands have changed over the last couple of decades; changes that are having a significant impact on more than just the PC market.

Fed up with planned obsolescence, we now demand things that last. How long did you keep your last washing machine, your vacuum cleaner, your last car?

Devices may not be user serviceable, but they just don't break the way they used to. Our dishwasher has moved house with us more than once, as has our washing machine. My car is thirteen years old, and still gets great mileage. Why would I need to change them?

The fact that today's software gets better performance out of yesterday's hardware can't be ignored. It's changing more than the PC industry – just look at Ford's Sync strategy for in-car entertainment.

Why rely on fixed car hardware that'll be with the driver for most of a decade, if you can have an API and an app ecosystem? Each time Pandora upgrades on my phone I get an improved experience, and Ford hasn't had to change my car.

That trend accounts for one aspect of the longevity of PCs. They've stopped breaking, because we don't want PCs that break. But there's another aspect, the Moore's Law elephant in the room.

A few years back PCs stopped getting faster. They just got more cores. As transistor density increased, the faster processors got, the hotter they got. And the hotter they got, the greater the risk of quantum instabilities in the billions of transistors that new processes were capable of making.

If you couldn't go faster, then how could you scale the processor? The answer was obvious: more transistors per processor meant more cores per processor. Instead of a single core handling everything, the same area of silicon could offer two, four, even eight.

Applications would have to take advantage of those cores, changing their single threaded architectures into multi-threaded, able to take full advantage of the parallel processing capabilities of those new processors. The megahertz race was over, now we’d reap the benefits in new ways.

Sadly that never happened. Development tools and languages still focused on the same single threaded, procedural approaches to application development.

Applications stopped getting faster, stopped getting better with each new tick and tock of the Intel processor cadence. We could run more of them, but how many copies of Word do we actually use at a time?

If we want to sell new desktop PCs we need new desktop applications that take advantage of that hardware. While Intel has visions of deep virtualisation as a solution, much of what can be easily parallelised is best done using the tools and techniques built into GPUs (and accessed via APIs like OpenCL and DirectX Compute).

Until we get a new generation of desktop applications that uses all those cores efficiently, there won't be new PCs on people's desks or in their bags.

If desktop software hasn't taken advantage of those new processors, the cloud certainly has. The high density datacenters that power the cloud, with their containers of commodity servers take advantage of virtualisation to operate in ways the home PC can't.

Arrays of throughput servers provide scale out capabilities, moving compute from the PC to the cloud. That means the home PC is being relegated to a service endpoint – a future akin to that of the rumoured "always-on" Xbox.

Windows 8 gets some of the blame here too. As I noted in my last post, the WinRT APIs at the heart of Windows 8 make it a lot easier for developers to write applications that offload functionality to the cloud.

HPs' Moonshot announcement is indicative of this trend. Instead of innovating in the home and office PC, it's offering cloud providers access to hardware innovation at cloud speeds. It's already demonstrated developing new processor boards for the Moonshot backplane in under three months – and with the initial Atom-based low power servers only the start, it's clear that this is where HP sees the future of computing.

And so we approach a cusp. The way we both use and buy computing is changing, dramatically. Our home and office PCs get better, but only when software gets better – and that means we're buying new hardware less often.

So yes, in a way this collapse is Windows 8's fault. With better performance on older hardware that lasts longer, and with tools that make it easier to work with the cloud, there’s little or no need to buy a new PC – at least not until something fails in your current PC, or until there’s a compelling new hardware feature that makes your life easier.

If the industry wants to sell more hardware, then it needs to encourage developers to produce software that takes advantage of its capabilities. Until then, well, what we have now is good enough to meet our needs.

So welcome then to the era of "good enough" computing. The hardware we have doesn't need to be any better for the software and tools we use. That's been the real big story of the last decade, and one that's conveniently left out of the narrative.

We're at a plateau, of computational power, of software, and of developer tools. The exponential explosion of desktop computing capabilities of the last thirty years is over, and it's unlikely to come back. And that's the real reason why PC sales have plummeted.


Topics: PCs, Windows 8

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • Productivity

    I am fine with the trusty Old PC. I pick up tablets for fun and media consumption. PCs are no longer fun. They have become the station wagon of the commuting world. People want zippy, cheaper convertibles for the rest of their driving experience. Adding a ragtop to a station wagon won't help.
    • flyguy29....Windows 8 and Metros Flashing Tiles are KILLING sales

      and people are just not willing to keep up grading just for a NEW UI..........So Simon Bisson story line is a 100% correct ........ Therir just isn't enough in W-8 ala Surface to move the market anymore.......and BLUE isn't going to do it either.........Were in the era of I don't need it till its really worth up grading......

      "The real reason for the PC sales plunge: The era of "good enough" computing"
      Over and Out
      • "New UI" problems

        When are you folks going to stop WHINING about "New UI"?

        People who have objections to "Metro" (which includes me), complain to whatever "computer geek" they know and the person tells them, "Download and install ClassicShell Menu"--it's free. That's what happened with my boss when she couldn't figure out how to use Win 8 on the laptop she bought her kid last Christmas.

        And, of course, when THEY hear someone complain, they tell them, "You can download a free program that fixes that."
        • "When are you folks going to stop WHINING about "New UI"?"

          Really now? What happened to the customer is always right? Anyway, IMO while windows 8 is great, there are kinks in the OS that need to be worked out.

          This video does a good job explaining those kinks imo.

          • Sorry but if you have ever worked behind a counter

            or at a bar, or any type of services you would know the customer is an IDIOT.... and is never never never right.... only if you work in a top end hotel are they right....
          • Hahaha ah so true!

            That brought memories of my school/student/qualifying years. McDonald's, to pubs, to computer stores, cinema.. so many retail jobs... You are so spot on!

            My problem with "customer is always right" is that it comes from an image of a time where you are a helpful bell-hop. The problem is that the customer doesn't realise they aren't some Georgian customer; they are gruff and rude and act like they are owed something. Like everything else in life, if you are nice to someone, they are more likely to be nice to you. From services to retail, I, and most of the people I worked with were always more likely to help you if you are pleasant. If you assumed the company we worked for owed you something more than the product you bought and acted as such... You weren't getting very far.

            The ultimate example had to be working in a computer store. We would honour manufacturer warranties in the first year. What most people don't realise is their warranty covers them for very, very little, and the get-out clauses are vast. It is very easy to find evidence of a laptop being opened previously for example. As it was a smaller company, we traded on customer service, and would often look for reasons to cover repairs in the manufacturer warranty by bending the rules a little. When doing this, the first question the manager would invariably ask is "are they nice?" Meaning "we shouldn't but if they're polite we'll stretch it"

            You'd be utterly amazed how many people came in and were unbelievably rude when trying to get help??

            With regards this article, it's something I've thought about more and more. I came to a different conclusion; that it's more hardware than software driving the shift.

            Looking at this Vista thing; Vista's a blip... Windows 7 uses more resources than xp, 8 more than 7, vista more than XP. Forget their test hardware; do not install windows 7 on early xp hardware without upgrades! Successive versions of Windows have run much smoother, kinks get ironed out. But I don't think that's the real cause.

            I look at this over the 30 years of home computing. Up until a decade ago your upgrade in hardware was determined by limitations of hardware. In 1998 I bought a windows 98 machine with 20gb hdd for a grand! It had a discrete sound card, it had a cd not DVD drive, it had a floppy drive that was actually needed, and a fancy 21" monitor that actually came with instructions NOT to put ontop of the box. I'm afraid I don't remember anything about the cpu other than it was pentium2. This machine was seen as future proofed.

            Jump forward 5 years. Computers cost half as much, came with nt powered xp, played dvd's, had broadband, had vast music libraries stored on them, were more and more online machines. Jump forward 10 years from them to now... It's exactly the same! my 2008 indestructible netbook runs windows 8, a machine I gave my old employer 50 quid for runs 64 bit win7, all my Linux and unix systems and manages VMware when I need it - literally running two OS at the same time... Can you imagine that win98 machine now?

            Hardware met our daily computing needs 10 years ago, since then it's been exceeding them. We initially used this leap to get ourselves laptops; all the stuff we wanted to do,but we could carry it anywhere. By 2006 everyone was choosing laptops. A multi computer house may have three laptops, but one desktop.

            Now it's smartphones and tablets... What people do on their phones is basically the same as they were doing in 2003 with a 25kg computer and monitor, or in 2006 with a 3kg laptop with an hour and a half off charge.... Just now it's a few hundred grams and fits in their pocket.

            What computers can do has reached unbelievable levels; home computers can make games, movies, animations; gaming tech is frankly unbelievable... But, for the average joe... None of that power is realised. They check their webmail, their facebook,YouTube. Do a bit of work in office, maybe play some browser games... Stream some shows. They know this. They are fully aware of what they will use a computer for now. Back in 1998 we were used to new features coming out every other year that changed how you used it, or gave you features you would use... It was always new and big. Now it's little tinkers.

            My 2grand home build does everything my 50 quid recycled PC does but a lot better. That win98 machine enabled me to set my colour settings above 16 bit!!!
          • Agreed!

            Your use of the adjective "Georgian" suggests you may be from the other side of the Atlantic, and that there are still people over there who consider their technical advisor a domestic servant. My sympathies. Over here the term Georgian designates a state of residence or birth, and although some of the people I love (wife and family, for example) are Georgian, I have met a number of examples of the opposite. If the word refers to an arrogant person who acts like an 18th century monarch, that would explain why our ancestors broke away from England. It certainly wasn't to get away from good people like you!

            Anyway, I hope you are getting a nicer batch of customers today! Cheerio!
          • My mistake!

            All appologies to the good people of Georgia; you are quite correct that I am indeed British and was refering to the British gentry of the Georgian period, but could have also used Victorian or Edwardian. infact Edwardian may have been more fitting as consumerism had really taken a hold of the upper class by that time.

            That said, I have been learning lots; that Georgia itself takes it's name from King George 2, the second king of the Georgian era... which ties it all up nicely. Fortunately today we've all settled our differences and are friends again on both sides of the pond, and most importantly, the old class system is gone forever... now to do something about the new one ;-)

            Let's be honest nobody liked the "Georgians" I was referring to... hense why a state named after the King of England decided less than 50 years later that it'd be better off without them!
          • culture

            I read it and never thought "Georgian" meant "From Georgia". Not from someone who pays in quid and says "spot on"

          • The Customer May Be An Idiot...

            But so long as it is his dollars keeping your job around, it pays to not denigrate him too much.
            Iman Oldgeek
          • I'd advise strongly against that argument.

            My view was that it's your job to help. If they're an arse... Well don't put yourself out more than you are paid to.

            I understand your viewpoint, completely in fact. Just never, under any circumstances voice it at a retail employee. Whilst it is based totally in logic, all you do is remind them how little they get paid, and how much they dislike parts of their job, probably the part they are currently experiencing.

            It may work on a manager, it's almoast guaranteed to backfire with staff... The classic "I'll go look for that madam" followed by 5 minutes sat on a box chatting.

            Just as your dollars are keeping the company running is a certainty, the chance that the problem you face has anything whatsoever to do with the employee in front of you is almost certainly remote. Vent at them and they'll do what their job says they have to. Ask them and they are more likely to help.

            You may have spent a lot of money, you may not want to spend money, the point is; manners cost nothing.
          • In response to the customer may be an idiot by Iman Oldgeek

            Agree that customer dollars keep everything going but humor can help you tolerate it. I have a tale of caution though. We have a local independent DVD rental place with snarky hipsters manning the counter. They are valuable for opinions and suggestions. I decided one day to see what the story was with these guys and ended up finding an old blog they were posting on where they denigrated customers by first name. It was hard to find so I don't think the customers mentioned ever will stumble on it but I will never look at them the same way again.
          • The Customer

            The old adage SHOULD be worded: the customer is always to be TREATED as being right. In other words, you don't want to win an argument and lose the sale. The only exception is a customer that SPECIFIES something that you, the expert, know will make the customer unhappy. You have to at least try, politely, to suggest something better for that customer's needs, but if the customer still insists, then go up and cheerfully ring up the sale.

            The reason for the first part is that people resent being told they are wrong when they are spending money. The reason for the second part is that, when the universe tells them they are wrong, they are less likely to blame you for misleading them. But be sure you are right, because if the customer switches to buying what you recommend, and THEN it turns out wrong, they WILL blame you even more forcefully.

            Sometimes sales professionals who work with less technically aware customers envy doctors and lawyers the fact that their opinions are backed up by a professional license. At least they envy skilled, knowledgeable doctors and lawyers, not the dumb ones!
          • Missing the point

            The customer is always right "BECAUSE THE CUSTOMER ALWAYS PAYS." And if the CUSTOMER HAS A BAD EXPERIENCE, the customer will not pay. (will not shop there or buy that product again) Personally I will never buy another GM product.

            BAD EXPERIENCE = Not getting what you expected= NOT BEING RIGHT. For a business to ignore that, or not to know that important fact is just plain arrogant. MS has been arrogant for years, (presumes to tell the customers what they need, and ignores what they want) the difference now is that the customers have other choices.
          • Precisely! Right = voting with the dollar

            And now, we *do* have choices, and some of them are indeed vastly superior, so much so that the competitors are copying those choices. For example: who first had the concept of an app store? Hint: It wasn't Apple...
          • Package management systems

            The App Stores are just paid versions Linux or free/open/NetBSD package repositorys.

            Package managers came about to unify software installations on a system, then they became almost exclusively online, followed by grapfical front ends.

            These front ends became more and more advanced in design. Front ends such as the App Store.

            Those early Linux systems such as SLS, Slaxware and Debian themselves built on BSD unix knowledge, which came from Unix... So, um like everything in modern computing it at one time or another ties in with the unix system?
        • What

          If your boss couldn't figure out how to use a windows 8 laptop how is she smart enough to be a boss. Really. It took my 9 yr old about 5 minutes. stop telling stories about your boss, either that or find a new one.
          • That's Because It's a Toy

            Your nine year old could figure it out because they don't have to run consolidated financial statements from multiple business units. Windows 8/Metro interface is a poor solution for people looking to work.
            Evil Sandmich
          • That whole "if you're not smart enough"...

            ..."to figure out Windows8" meme is *SO* old, so trite. People have work to do, they don't have time to mess with Rubic's Cube in order to do tasks they could do in their sleep before.
          • That proves the point.

            The Metro user interface looks like Fischer-Price designed it for 9 year olds. It's just as limited, too.

            Intelligent adults who are accustomed to doing many things at once, find Windows 8 illogical and severely limiting. Many things they did easily in Windows 7 are now inaccessible or buried very deep in Metro. In trying to make Metro idiot proof, they made it so only idiots could stand to use it.