Why the PC needs a personality transplant

Monday 07 January 2013 15.20
Niall Kitson looks at what the future has in store for the personal computer
Niall Kitson looks at what the future has in store for the personal computer

In our latest TechCentral podcast we talked about trends for 2013 and many of the usual suspects (social media, on-demand media) got an airing. But one subject that bears dwelling on some more is how the PC market will fare, writes Niall Kitson.

Barclays analyst Ben Reitzes' forecast for PC sales up to 2016 is a bleak one. A combination of weak macro conditions (ie the ongoing recession); confusion over Windows 8 adoption; cannibalisation of the market by tablets; and elongated life cycles as customers expand their digital lifestyle to encompass smart devices on reduced budgets are taking its toll on a product space dominated by two flavours: Windows desktop or Windows laptop. Now the options are more diverse, complex and span different price points, markets and demographics.

It's hard to argue with Reitzes' predictions. Tablets have found their niche in the casual computing space, beating netbooks on performance and laptops on convenience; and Ubuntu parent company Canonical is trying to supplant the PC altogether with a native version of the open source operating system that runs on a phone and can connect to a regular display and peripherals like keyboards and mice. Perhaps even worse is the popularity of the Raspberry Pi - a single-board PC running Linux that comes in at under €50 and fits in the palm of the hand.

Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) like Dell and HP will be less than impressed with the shift to mobile (especially seeing as they don't play in that space) but all is not lost and there are technological and cultural factors in play that could prove Reitzes wrong.

Learning experience

One good place to start looking for hope in the PC market is the demand from primary and second level students. Market forces are pushing sales down but a new generation of kids leaning coding from a younger age is one way of getting new consumers on board. After-school clubs like Corkman James Whelton’s CoderDojo (now active in 22 countries) have shown that coding is now considered just another language that can be mastered at an early age. Getting a decent PC can be seen as an important learning tool good for more than Microsoft Office applications and gaming.

There’s also scope for improvement in hardware. A new wireless standard in 802.11ac holds promise as does the continued proliferation of USB 3.0. OEMs have, however, found themselves playing catch-up with Apple since it upped the ante on high definition displays by adding its 326dpi retina display to its range of Macbooks.

Already a standard feature on iPhone and iPad, the first run of Macbooks with retina display sold out on pre-order, despite a €500 premium. The extra sharpness was a draw for fanboys, creatives and even some gamers. As 4K ultra high definition TVs get ready for the mass market now would be a good time to look at what LCD, LED and even OLED have to offer in competition.

Apple also held off from competing in the netbook space because it couldn't figure out a way to make it profitable, instead it came up with the Macbook Air, an expensive alternative that didn't compromise on either power or design. Netbooks have disappeared but the Air has become a benchmark for ultraportable laptops, a favourite with developers and journalists who are constantly on the move.

By far the biggest loser in the PC space in 2012 has been the ultrabook PC. Hailed as the next big thing in slim and light computers, ultrabooks presented themselves as a more cost efficient alternative to Apple’s Macbook Air, a premium product starting at €1,099.

Unfortunately for OEMs, ultrabooks have failed to ignite the market. A report by IHS iSuppli analyst Paul Stice echoed this sentiment in his own market report, which estimated that only 10.3 million ultrabooks were in circulation, in comparison with predicted sales of 44 million - a best case scenario would have us believe ultrabooks have reached 25% of sales targets.

Why the apathy? Reitzes’ appraisal certainly holds true and OEMs are reacting accordingly. HP is looking to address the price problem with its Sleekbook line that starts at around €500 (touch screen models optimised for Windows 8 cost considerably more) but this seems to be missing the point. Competing with Apple - a company that prides itself on design - on price is a bad move and competing with other OEMs on this field is a worse one when consumers have displayed only a passing interest in ultrabooks.

So where to for the PC? My money is on a return to core values: the desktop experience. Increasingly I am seeing workspaces dominated by second monitors and gamers looking for more horsepower. Offering more choice in operating systems would be a boon as well. If Windows 8 hasn't delivered, then consumers should be able to choose between it and the more familiar Windows 7.

Are the next four years going to be so bleak for PCs? If OEMs show confidence in their products by improving spec and not buckling on price there may be life in it yet. Replacing the ‘personal’ with ‘premium’ in PC would be a start.

Niall Kitson is editor of TechCentral.ie