Fixing the PC market in the Post-PC Era: Build better PCs

If you build it, they will come. No truer words were ever spoken. Building a better PC isn't difficult; it's just not something that anyone thinks about while lamenting the dramatic drop in PC sales. Build a better PC and we'll buy it.
Written by Ken Hess, Contributor

It's true that losers outnumbered winners in PC sales figures last year, but the winners; Lenovo, HP, and Dell pulled away from the pack in a big way. Their PC* sales figures for the "Back to School" period were all up from the same period in 2012. But they were up in small percentages: 2.8, 1.5, and 1.0, respectively. It doesn't sound like a lot of "growth" but the raw numbers are pretty impressive: 14.1 million, 13.7 million, and 9.3 million, respectively. Not small potatoes but certainly not where they want to be or perhaps thought they should be. The solution to lagging PC sales is simple: Build a better PC.

And if you really step back and analyze the market over the past five to ten years, you'll have to agree that's exactly what PC manufacturers have done—especially in the last three years. I've seen amazing advances in PC technology, overall quality, and product durability. A few years back, I thought the PC industry was trending toward low end, disposable computers, which, if someone really analyzed it, probably coincides with the downward sales trends. 

I think the introduction of tablet computers has made PC manufacturers step back and examine their disposable PC trend. Because tablets are the new disposable PC, consumers and businesses alike want longer lasting hardware. In fact, some companies have PCs refurbished and redeployed in order to avoid the disposability of their investments.

Tablets have driven manufacturers to raise the bar on quality and that's a very good thing for consumers and businesses. If you look at the new lineups from Acer, Asus, Dell, HP, and Lenovo, you'll see what I'm describing. They've all moved to a smaller but better type offering in their lines. 

For example, PC manufacturers offer so-called budget PCs that are really meant for those who don't require something with more horsepower—email, browsing, word processing, and some online games. Next, you have your "business" PCs and educational PCs. Manufacturers offer a short range of five or fewer but they cover the gamut from small and portable to higher end workstations. Finally, you have the high end PCs that carry a heavy price tag as well. These PCs generally describle users with heavy needs such as developers, testers, support, and gamers.

And now manufacturers have released a line of "touch" PCs that have Windows 8.x enhancements. And all have a Chromebook available for those who want to face the future of personal computing a little early.

Prices generally range from $250 to more than $2,000, with a happy medium hovering near the $600 mark for the above average consumer or the average business user units.

I'm personally hooked on the Ultrabook and Chromebook PCs. I love the power and portability of the Ultrabooks and as I wrote earlier, Chromebooks are awesome because of their portability and user friendliness. Long battery life for both of these platforms is excellent as well.

I'm so hooked on Ultrabook PCs that I've, as you probably know, wanted an Ultrabook for myself but bought a Mac mini instead. But I did get a Chromebook, so now I'm set. My wife's boss asked her to evaluate a list of new laptop computers so that he could buy one for himself. I looked at the list and went off list to recommend the HP Envy Ultrabook. After much mulling, he bought the Envy and loves it. And, as the name implies, I'm green with Envy. Honestly, it is much better than any of the PCs he considered and had recommended to him by other "experts". I actually told him that if he didn't love the Envy, that I'd buy it from him. That, my friends, is a no lose situation.

I digress but you see my point that PC manufacturers have risen to the occasion by building better PCs and it has worked. PC sales are up over the previous year. They'll keep going up too.

One reason is that quality of personal computers is on the way up but also that people realize that tablets are limited use devices. For example, I couldn't write this post on a tablet without using many well-chosen expletives. It would take two or three times as long to write it and require many fermented beverages along the way. In either case, quality and blood pressure would both suffer greatly.

I believe that as PC quality increases, sales will also increase. Tablets can't do the same job as efficiently and I think people have discovered this fact. But we want quality. We want our PCs to last from three to five years. Most businesses figure the life of a PC is three years. Consumers generally have no idea how long a computer should last. Of course, the rules change depending on many factors such as environmental conditions, use cases, and personal habits.

Beyond quality, manufacturers need to build loyalty into their products. What I mean is that warranties, accessories, upgradeability, and trade-in options will build that long-term loyalty. Unfortunately, the customer's value has slipped in previous years. Consumers have become numbers such as indicators, stock prices, and units sold.

Computer buyers are the lifeblood of a company. If you build quality products and build brand loyalty into those products, your stock price will go up. Focus on the people who buy your products. Design for them. Create for them. You can't build a better consumer, so you have to build a better PC. If you build them, they will come. And they'll keep coming back.

What do you think? Do you think that PC manufacturers care about their consumers? Is there such a thing as brand loyalty? Talk back and let me know.

*For the purposes of this post, my definition of "PC" covers laptops, notebooks, Ultrabooks, and desktop computers. It does not cover tablets, netbooks, or convertibles.

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