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

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.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

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?

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