On PC homebrewing death and dying

Five years ago I went through the "denial" stage. And then "anger." And onto "bargaining" and "depression." I am now in full "acceptance" that building PCs for personal and business use no longer makes economic or business sense.

In 1969 the world-renowned Swiss psychologist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, in her book "On Death and Dying" introduced a hypothesis on how humans handle grief in successive stages. There is "denial, anger, bargaining, depression", and finally "acceptance."

I was once an avid homebrewer. I grew up with a love of the user-serviceable PC, to be able to understand its inner workings, to be able to do my own repairs and upgrades, and also to save money. For over 20 years I built my own PCs for these very reasons. But now this no longer makes sense.

Image: ZDNet

While there still exists a cottage industry for building "White Boxes" and supporting the homebrewed PC enthusiast, this industry is not a healthy one. The homebrewing and White Box industry is on the verge of extinction.

This is because PC industry is now mature, and that a combination of factors including economies of scale in PC manufacturing by the large OEMs as well as a heavy consolidation of PC component vendors that has eliminated diversity and choice for the homebrewer.

Most importantly though, an industry movement towards integrated systems — such as accelerated processing units (APUs) and System-on-a-Chip (SoCs), which reduce the overall components required to build a PC and also a shift towards notebooks and tablets as preferred computing devices — has largely made homebrewing and white boxing an unnecessary anachronism.

There are very few advantages to building your own PC or having a reseller or integrator do this for you today. Ten years ago — more realistically 15 or 20 years — there was a healthy ecosystem of diverse component vendors as well as businesses that could competitively price systems built from scratch. They could also provide significant differentiation and value add with building systems. Part of what came along with this would be personalized support.

But that ecosystem is not healthy today, the component supply chain has become heavily consolidated, and the Tier-1 vendors can provide excellent on-site tech support contracts.

If you really prefer local, personalized tech support, there's always independent consultants who specialize in this. But many have largely ceased the practice of building and reselling systems due to the resale tax burden as well as being unable to compete with system margins sold in retail, brick and mortar retail or discount clubs, and with e-commerce direct to order.

There are also tangible risks associated with building your own PCs.

First there is the risk of a local IT firm or whiteboxer being unable to support your systems by the very real possibility of them closing up shop and you being stuck with non-retail, bulk OEM PC components with limited warrantees. While this sounded ludicrous 15 or 20 years ago, that's now a very real possibility today.

The second is being able to consistently source the same components and not being able to standardize installs and drivers. While this is not necessarily as much of an issue as it was, say, 10 years ago with the advent of componentized and scripted installs, as well as superior plug-and-play (PnP) technology in today's PC operating systems, it still adds to the support burden and it adds significantly to overall level of effort and time sink.

Why? Because you are spending an inordinate amount of time and energy on system verification rather than unpacking OEM systems from boxes and turning them on, and pushing down a standardized image with all your apps on it. Time is money. Do you want your highly-paid IT staff wasting valuable time playing PC tech, or to focus their energies in support your line of business applications and infrastructure?

You should never consider building your own PC if you actually care about the dynamics of your business and require consistent support.

You aren't going to save money, your support options are not going to be better with white boxes than with an OEM certified system, because you can get a support plan from an OEM, and you can get local consultants to deal with break-fix on simple items if the machine comes out of warranty.

And in most cases, when a key component of the system dies, it's probably simpler and more cost effective to just replace it rather than repair it due to labor costs alone.

One could argue that there are edge-case vertical industry scenarios where an end-user or a business needs a specialized graphics or PCI card, or an extreme high performance internal storage device, extremely high-speed networking, or what have you that isn't supported in an off-the-shelf PC configuration.

There may be also be legacy hardware and peripherals with software and drivers that still needs to be supported that cannot run on modern systems, but in cases like this the business should be considering migration to rid themselves of these high-risk devices that could severely impact their business if they fail.

Industries like computer graphics, engineering, and content creation have demanding requirements that may occasionally outstrip the capabilities of what many PC vendors might offer, even with their most high-end workstations. But these are extremely rare cases and more often than not there are practical workarounds, which don't require a custom build.

I've spent a good amount of time here talking about why businesses should not build PCs. But what about the consumer?

There are no advantages to doing this today. None. Zero. Zilch. Zippo. Nada. If we are talking about a typical consumer with a capital C (and not a Hobbyist, or a Gamer) someone who browses the web, engages in social networking, and uses productivity and typical multimedia applications, and plays games casually, then you should never consider building a PC.

First of all, a brand-new PC is going to come with a Windows 8 license. A white boxer or a PC hobbyist building a system from scratch will need to buy the OEM System Builder Kit, since there is no Retail license as with Windows 7, there are only Upgrade licenses for consumers.

That System Builder license of Windows 8 will run you about $95 on Amazon for the regular version and about $135.00 for the Pro version. That's going to negate a lot of the perceived cost savings of building a box right there.

Your old Windows 7 Retail license can be re-used if your old PC is discarded, but you cannot re-use the OEM copy that came with a OEM-built system without violating the Microsoft EULA. This counts for businesses as well, unless, they have volume licenses and EAs.

And yes, my Linux friends? Building a system doesn't help you either. You can buy perfectly good Linux certified systems from OEMs and virtually every OEM system out of box that runs Windows works fine with Linux anyway, and even with the cost of that OEM license built in, you'd be hard pressed to save time, money, and frustration from building your own box. I've done this, many times.

There still remains a group of people — ones who are in an extremely vocal minority — that identify themselves as PC builders.

These are prosumers and hobbyists which, for whatever reason, have had a history of building systems and are permanently fixated in a DIY worldview who can never be convinced to buy systems from OEMs due to whatever misguided or outdated ideologies about build costs or component quality they may still maintain.

But this is such a small and ever declining portion of the PC using population and is no foundation for a PC building industry to survive on.

The meat of the issue really has little to do with the desires of homebrewers. It has to do with the component manufacturers and a shift towards mobility.

Movement towards low-cost SoC-based and APU-based devices, whether they be Ultrabooks, tablets, smartphones, convergence devices and wearables shifts computational power and infrastructure from the desktop to the datacenter and Cloud and also software from a purchased or licensed to a subscription and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) or Desktop-as-a-Service (DaaS) model.

So building PCs will make far less sense than ever before.

Many of the component vendors who make PC parts are also moving their business models towards supporting and manufacturing the above mentioned systems and away from things like graphics cards, hard drives and mainboards, which will make building PCs that much more difficult.

We're moving towards a model where PCs are no longer going to be serviceable, whether it is a notebook computer with soldered-on everything or a PC mainboard that is simply a just a glorified SoC with onboard GPU, RAM and networking. I don't see how a PC building ecosystem can continue to be viable in that way.

And if you've walked into a typical enterprise lately, the tablet, laptop and notebook population far exceeds the desktop PC population. Let's face it, nobody is homebrewing or whiteboxing notebooks. And by the way, I consider "White Box" specialty notebook builders like Sager as pure OEMs, not whiteboxers.

I think we're also seeing a distinct movement toward touchscreen devices, whether they be on High-end Ultrabooks and Convertibles like the Lenovo X1 Carbon Touch, Asus's budget VivoBook X202E or all-in-ones like HP's TouchSmart line.

While the PC market as a whole is in decline, these form factors are actually showing very clear signs of adoptance.

If the industry trends and hard numbers are of any indication, consumers value mobility just as much if not more than the enterprise does. So the PC desktop, be it OEM or home-built, is long overdue for total extinction.

Then what are we as business owners and end-users to do?

We should be refocusing on supporting and building our line of business apps, and undergoing transformation processes that shift as much of our infrastructure to the datacenter and cloud as possible, and that includes moving desktops to VDI and DaaS. That may be very hard for some folks to accept but that is the path that has been laid for our industry going forward.

Five years ago I went through the "denial" stage. And then the "anger." And then "bargaining" and "depression." I am now in full "acceptance" that building PCs for personal and business use no longer makes economic and business sense, and with the exception of certain edge and vertical scenarios, of which there is a declining few, that whiteboxing and homebrewing is dead.

Have you also gone though the PC building grief cycle? Talk back and let me know.

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