Post-PC era means mass extinction for personal computer OEMs

HP is laying off more than 27,000 employees and Dell's Q1 2012 earnings were weak across the board. What does this mean for the future of Personal Computer OEMs?
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer
This article is an expansion of Jason's arguments from the ZDNet Great Debate: Can PC makers survive in a Post PC world?

Just over eight months ago, my colleague Zack Whittaker and I were were both standing on our virtual podiums debating whether "Post-PC" was actually real or if it was bunk. In the end, while Zack put up a good fight that the PC would never die, the arguments favored that the Post-PC world was truly upon us.

Eight months later, two giant PC manufacturers are in dire straits -- Hewlett-Packard recently announced laying off over 27,000 employees and Dell's Q1 2012 earnings have been weak across the board in their Consumer, Public Sector and Enterprise divisions.

Apple, on the other hand, is doing magnificently, with their products accounting for over 22.5 percent of mobile PC shipments globally in the first quarter of 2012, 80 percent of that being their own Post-PC iPad tablet, with 17 million mobile PC units shipped, according to NPD Displaysearch.

The hard truth is facing us -- traditional PC purchases are slowing down dramatically. Unless you are cultivating a strong business in tablet computers and smartphones as well it's going to be a very uncomfortable ride in the next few years for the PC manufacturers.

And dare I say it, a number of them are going to go extinct.

So what exactly is Post-PC, anyway? Is it simply just a buzzword, or is it a legitimate phenomenon?

To put it bluntly, the Post-PC world represents a displacement of computing from the traditional, 30 year-old Intel architecture used on desktop to the Datacenter and the Cloud.

In essence, we are returning to a very similar highly centralized model that was popular in the late 60's and mid-1970's with mainframe-based computing.

The only difference is that instead of a monolithic, purely mainframe-based time sharing model, our new centralized architecture is multi-vendor and heterogeneous, can be distributed within Public and Private Cloud infrastructure in multiple datacenters and is more business resilient and more flexible than ever before.

Within ten years, the majority of business professionals will be using extremely inexpensive thin notebooks, tablets and thin clients (sub $500) which will utilize any number of software technologies that run within the browser or will use next-generation Web-based APIs and Web Services (Such as those available in Microsoft's WinRT and other HTML5 frameworks) to provide line-of-business application functionality.

In addition, I see the application programming standards used by today's most popular mobile operating systems -- iOS and Android -- being used heavily in business environments to provide the front ends to these Web APIs.

As soon as three to five years from now, the average business professional will be transitioning from "Heavy" clients such as desktop PCs and business laptops with large amounts of localized storage and localized applications using Intel chips and Windows to very small and extremely power efficient, SoC-based systems using completely solid state storage (SSD) which will function mostly as cache for applications that run remotely.

I see a mix of both ARM and Intel's next-generation Systems on a Chip (SoC) using sub-22 nanometer manufacturing processes fulfilling this role, with the predominance of the market being addressed by ARM-based devices as we move further into the future and backwards compatibility no longer becomes as pressing an issue.

I also expect that during the 5-year transition period to fully Web-based apps, there will be a significant amount of virtualized desktop apps (VDI) via Microsoft's Remote Desktop Services and RemoteFX in order to bridge the gap.

BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) will also be part of this equation. I see mobile hypervisors such as Intel's Wind River, Open Kernel Labs OKL4, Red Bend's vLogix and VMWare's own Horizon product being used in conjunction with mobile software management solutions to provide security and partitioning for the employee that chooses to bring their own devices to work, particularly if they are Android, Windows Phone or Windows RT-based solutions.

I also expect that for iOS, Apple will either partner with major enterprise software vendors for providing a similar type of security partitioning, or buy/roll their own solutions in order to make their mobile operating system a first class managed citizen in the enterprise.

[Next: How the extinction will play out]»

Now that we know what the technologies that will replace traditional desktop computing will look like, who is poised to lead the transformation of personal computing?

Apple obviously has an extremely large lead in Post-PC devices with its own iPad, and everyone else is currently at a disadvantage due to its market penetration and the maturity of its developer ecosystem. Anyone who joins this bandwagon obviously is in a very good position to penetrate the enterprise and the consumer space as a software or services vendor.

That being said, while Microsoft's current mobile offerings have had a lukewarm reception in the consumer space, the company still has tremendous potential for maintaining its lead in the enterprise, given significant advancements with the upcoming releases of the Windows 2012 Server operating system, the latest incarnations of Office, as well as Windows 8 and Windows RT.

And while Google and its handset OEMs are doing extremely well in the consumer smartphone space, I do not envision a pure consumerization route for Android tablets in the enterprise a la iOS in the immediate future, at least not until some initiative is taken by the company to write or provide incentives for 3rd-party developers to write enterprise-grade tablet apps, or until they provide a good management framework.

Perhaps at Google I/O we'll see some new developments in this area which I believe Android is lacking, particularly now that the Oracle litigation and the Motorola acquisition is behind them.

Mobile Hypervisors I mentioned earlier will certainly help, but Google needs more than that to provide a compelling reason for enterprises to use Android over iOS or Windows RT.

This is not to say Android tablets and other devices will not have an impact -- they will, particularly in vertical market applications, perhaps more-so than iOS or Windows RT, due to the ability for Android to be modified by the vendor. But vertical for the most part is niche, and not within the scope of widespread adoption.

Additionally, despite it being a good idea, Chrome OS/Chromebooks so far have had very little traction in the consumer or enterprise market at all, due to the high cost of the devices and their limited functionality.

However, with a possible fusion of the Chrome Browser for Android, inexpensive ARM SoCs and the developer/hardware ecosystem of the Android OS, the Chromebook and Chromebox concept might yet still have some legs.

We now come to the unpleasant part of the personal computing transformation -- the companies that will undoubtedly suffer as a result of the sweeping changes that will occur within the next decade.

Any company which has had revenues that are heavily dependent on PC manufacturing and sales had better start thinking about diversification and eliminating redundant products.

Obviously, the big targets are Hewlett-Packard and Dell. Dell may still weather the storm because it recently bought WYSE, indicating a future emphasis towards smart devices, VDI and thin clients.

Microsoft as a company will continue to survive by transitioning a large portion of its software business towards the enterprise and server-based/Cloud computing.

The consumer and business conversion to the Metro UI in Windows 8 will be a slow one while enterprises retain a significant amount of Win32-based desktop software infrastructure, as its server software and Cloud business will be strong and even expand.

Microsoft has always had an active role in the development of the Personal Computer between Intel and the PC vendors, and has been proactive in dealing with industry changes and trends.

However, there can be no denying that with Windows RT, the company is hedging its bets between Intel and ARM, which is obviously making its traditional partners nervous since a huge amount of their revenue stream has been Intel and Windows RT's success is not necessarily assured.

The last time Windows ran on multiple desktop architectures was in the early 1990's, when Windows NT was introduced on the PowerPC and MIPS alongside Intel. This is a big deal.

That being said, the continued health of its traditional partners such as HP and Dell are not necessarily guaranteed, as I have explained above.

Intel, on the other hand, may need to make some difficult choices in the years ahead. I think there will clearly be some demand for Ultrabooks and Windows 8, but as to how deep it will be compared to tablets and traditional laptops running Windows 7 I cannot say.

The prices for Ultrabooks certainly need to go below sub-$1000 or even less to make an impression, because your average consumer laptop goes for about $600.

I can say, however, that by not investing in ARM-based semiconductor technologies, Intel doesn't have much of a Plan B in place. While their Tri-Gate manufacturing process has enormous potential, x86 isn't necessarily the best and only target for it going forward.

As I touched on earlier, diversification into Post-PC products by these companies and eliminating redundant products/streamlining is going to crucial in order to survive the transition.

If we look at Apple as an example, they only have a few basic types of Macs and Macbooks -- the Macbook Air in two sizes, the Macbook Pro in three sizes, two sizes of iMac, two variants of Mac Mini, and the Mac Pro desktop.

The Mac Pro is likely going to be discontinued or some amped-up Ivy Bridge version of the Mini or the iMac will end up taking its place (iMac Pro?)

It also wouldn't surprise me at all to see Apple further streamline and eliminate the Macbook Pro/Air and just have a single Macbook line sometime in the future merging the technologies of both lines.

Apple has no problem doing more with less, and its profits reflect heavily on that philosophy.

By comparison, your average PC vendor has a lot more flavors of system they are trying to sell. For example, HP has at least 5 lines of consumer laptops with multiple sizes within each line, and at least 16 types of desktops. This is madness, and it's no wonder the company is experiencing problems.

There will always be a need for the traditional PC, but it will become more of a niche market than it is today. Ten years from now, less than 10 percent of the current global PC using population, if not as low as five percent will actually require them.

It could be even less depending on how big technologies like VDI take off. Give a developer or someone in the scientific/engineering field a lot of back end server power on a private cloud and a professional monitor attached to a thin client, along with technologies like Microsoft's RemoteFX for server-side GPU rendering of virtual desktops, and the need for those big desktops could entirely disappear.

The biggest hurdle the PC OEM industry will have to face is the inevitable and painful consolidation. This is a process which began 20 years ago, when there were literally at least a dozen Tier 1 manufacturers as well as scores of Tier 2 and white-box vendors. Many of those companies no longer exist today due to mergers, acquisitions, and companies simply going out of business.

The white box and system builder phenomenon is also in danger of disappearing entirely, much to my own remorse.

Lenovo is likely to usurp HP as top PC dog within the next two years because it is not as fat a company, it's a virtual subsidiary of the Chinese government with huge domestic demand for their products, and has done well diversifying into Android and Windows tablets in addition to smartphones.

In addition to Lenovo getting bigger or even consuming weaker brands (Fujitsu/Toshiba/Panasonic's PC divisions or possibly even Dell) we may very well see Microsoft and Intel have stronger relationships with what we might now call Tier 2 or Tier 3 Chinese vendors, such as Asus and Acer, which are not nearly as margin sensitive as the Big Three.

It is also inevitable that a bunch of these Chinese and also Korean firms will consolidate as margins become hair-thin.

It also would not surprise me to see Samsung's PC business improve due to their diversification and their leadership in consumer electronics and component manufacturing business as well.

One could compare this to what is regarded as the most modern theory by developed by leading paleontologists as to what really happened to the dinosaurs during the late Cretaceous period.

Before the big asteroid hit, dinosaurs were already experiencing a period of difficulty due to climate change.

While there was a single cataclysmic event that accelerated their decline, and a huge amount of the animals died out within a few years, it is now known that a much smaller population of non-avian dinosaurs continued to live for hundreds of thousands of years after the K-T event because they became highly specialized and adapted to a cooling planet.

And other species of dinosaurs evolved into what we now recognize as birds.

You don't have to be Carnac the Magnificent to see the writing on the wall. It's painfully obvious that the industry has too many PC manufacturers and they have too many redundant products to sell, with a falling demand for their wares.

There's your climate change. The accelerated acceptance of Post-PC devices like the iPad is the asteroid.

The majority of consumers desire and require inexpensive, mobile devices that do the basics (Web, Email, Social Networking) along with easy to use apps that leverage data stored in the Cloud.

Conversely, businesses and the enterprise want devices that are low cost, power-efficient, low maintenance and easily manageable, with the ability to leverage applications and data running in their datacenters.

Only Post-PC devices such as tablets, ARM-based systems and thin clients (such as Google's Chromebox) can achieve this.

Sure, some people will still require the horsepower and complexity of the PC. But this debate was never about the PC itself going away; it's whether or not PC companies as a whole can sustain a business model on revenue largely dependent on PCs.

And to that, the answer is a resounding no.

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