Who's killing the PC? Blame the cloud

Gartner's and IDC's first quarter 2013 PC sales numbers look bad, but we shouldn't be surprised because we saw this coming nearly two years ago. Welcome to the Cenozoic era, Cretaceans.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

If you've been following the news lately, you'd think it was the beginning of the end for the Personal Computer industry.

According to a report recently released by Gartner, sales of PCs in the first quarter of 2013, regardless of manufacturer and operating system platform, are the worst since an all-time low in the second quarter of 2009.

IDC presented similar results in another study that indicates sales are down 14 percent from the fourth quarter of 2012.


This is not just bad news, it's awful news for no matter who you are, whether you produce PC software and operating systems, or PCs and PC components themselves.

It also doesn't make a difference whether you're headquartered in Redmond, Santa Clara, Palo Alto, Cupertino, Austin, or Morrisville, North Carolina for that matter. Or Hong Kong.

I cannot say that I am particularly surprised about this, because this is a topic that I have been writing about for a while. 

A year ago, I participated in a Great Debate with ZDNet's Zack Whittaker on whether or not PC OEMs would survive in an environment dominated by smartphones and tablets.

I took the "No" side of the argument, and summarized my thoughts in an article aptly named "Post-PC era means mass extinction for personal computer OEMs".

I won that debate, by the way. For the second time in a row.

So the decline has been happening for at least two years, if not a bit more. We've seen the warning signs of a climate change, now we're seeing clear signs of the beginning of an extinction event.

Therefore, we can't blame this rightly or wrongly on the wholesale rejection of a single OS release by end users due to substantial UX changes as much as some people would like one to believe, because the downward trend has been with us for quite some time.  

The real reason why the PC era is coming to an end is the notion of "Good Enough" computing. 

Tablets and low-power convertibles and inexpensive ultrabooks provide an experience that yields sufficient functionality that is not as rich as the traditional PC experience, whether it is overall processing power or app complexity, but they are less expensive, more battery efficient and much easier to lug around.

I learned this lesson for myself personally when I went to a trade conference this week in Las Vegas and only brought a Microsoft Surface RT and two of my smartphones with me, an iPhone 5 and a Nokia 920. I was away from my home office with my full-blown PC laptop running Windows 8, and yet I was still able to get all of my work done.

I probably could have left my iPhone home entirely, but it was the one device that I own with an unlimited data plan for watching Netflix movies in my hotel room, and I chain-charged the phones so that one was always on duty. 

All of my important remote/mobile work was accomplished with a $500 tablet with a magnetic detachable keyboard and a smartphone.

Now, price and weight is only part of the equation. Yes, people really like the fact that these things are incredibly light, and they can get eight to ten hours of battery life, and you can still do a lot of things with them that PCs can do.

But to make these Post-PC devices do their magic, and to make the transition without being disruptive to the traditional business workflows and workloads that we currently enjoy, you need something significant to offload the functionality of complex applications that run on PCs today.

That significant thing is the Cloud, and I think we can also say with a high degree of confidence that this is going to be the workhorse of the personal computing experience going forward. Today, the Cloud is highly misunderstood and it is also in many cases vilified and feared.

But it is also what is going to facilitate a seamless transition to an industry dominated by Post-PC devices and allow our PC software ecosystem to evolve into a healthy end-state.

Without sophisticated Cloud-based applications, whether they are exposed by web services and accessed by simple applications running on iOS, Android or the Windows RT API, or as fully-hosted desktop apps running virtually in the datacenter via subscription or by using existing enterprise licensing models, Post-PC systems as we understand them in their roles as used in business and the enterprise will not work. 

So while Post-PC devices are cannibalizing their forebears for their lower price points, their superior battery life and lighter load, they are entirely dependent on the fundamental systems architecture, applications and business logic that were pioneered before them on PCs and continue to be essential today.

And as with any extinction event, the process does not happen overnight and there are those species that will continue to dominate regardless of the overall health of the ecosystem. The use of PCs is indeed declining, but certain form factors are succeeding even within that declining enviornment.

I recently ordered a Lenovo X1 Carbon Touch as my new work PC. You would think that with all this doom and gloom surrounding PC sales, I could get it delivered to my home office by FedEx or UPS in a week. Not so.

Lenovo might as well re-name the X1 Carbon Touch the X1 Unobtanium, because that's practically what it is. This high-end, touchscreen Windows 8 Ultrabook has over a one month lead time from order until delivery. I'll be lucky to receive mine sometime in June.

And as I understand, this is par for the course for other manufacturers with similar lightweight, convertible touchscreen devices. I've also been told by reliable sources that during the abysmal holiday season of 2012, big box stores didn't order enough of these systems and they sold out, whereas the old-school, heavier laptops and desktop systems didn't move and resulted in a surplus of these machines in the channel.

Why are these types of PCs thriving when others are not? Because they are adapting to their environment. The PC is changing its form factor to become more like its Post-PC counterparts. The dinosaurs are becoming birds. 

Some of this has to do with whether or not the OEM is especially agile and can mimic the attributes of their Post-PC manufacturing peers. Lenovo is a highly-focused Chinese company and understands how to leverage the Asian supply chain to its best advantage.

To quote my ZDNet colleague Ed Bott, "To a large extent, the secret of their success in the US is going up against the totally hapless HP and distracted Dell. So they maintain absolute sales in a shrinking market and actually gain share."

And like its Post-PC rival Samsung, Lenovo is also reportedly making investments in semiconductor technology so it can become more self-sufficient.

It should also be no surprise that Samsung is also doing well and actually growing its own PC business, which like Lenovo, are more of the extremely lightweight, Ultrabook style of machines that are targeted almost exclusively to business and the enterprise.

These birds for the most part aren't playing in the same consumer muck that their Cretaceous Tyrannosaurian and Certotopsian colleagues are. Which is why they are actually thriving in a chilling environment. 

The Mesozoic era of the PC had a good run. Are we now about to cede that to the Post-PC Cenozoic, dominated by birds that fly in the Clouds? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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