New Life for PCs

on August 12, 2014

After having been written off as dead more times than I can remember, it seems the PC industry is staging a resurrection of sorts, driven by both businesses and consumers starting to realize that PCs are still useful devices that they’d like to have around. Not only are we starting to hear more positive news about shipments and forward-looking business from big players like Dell, HP, Lenovo, Intel, AMD and others, there’s even news around innovations and advancements within the industry.

Intel yesterday reminded the world about how it continues to drive impressive improvements in process technology and CPU architectures with announcements around its 14 nm Broadwell-based Core M CPU. The chip, which is specifically designed for 8-10 mm thick 2-in-1 and ultrabook-style PCs, is expected to offer solid improvements in performance and, more importantly, even lower power requirements for the entire system. By taking a pragmatic approach to the design process, where they started outward from the finished system and moved inward to the chip, they’re enabling super-thin, lightweight, fan-less PCs that are optimized for power at every possible level. The end result should be some very sleek, sexy designs that finally “really” deliver on full-day, everything on, everything connected PCs by this holiday season.

Another big PC-related story came via nVidia and Acer, who debuted a Tegra K1-based Chromebook for $279. Chromebooks themselves have been one of the surprise hits in the PC industry over the last year or so, particularly in the US education market. In many cases they are replacing tablets, as schools have become concerned both with the high cost of tablets and their lack of a keyboard, among other things. Plus, to see nVidia bring their new CPU architecture over to a clamshell-based design demonstrates their awareness of the new type of value they can provide in a business that has been at their core since their founding.

And just to keep things interesting, we even have a back to the future marketing campaign that just launched with Microsoft taking on Apple in a Surface Pro 3 vs. Macbook TV ad. Yes, it’s 2014 and Microsoft and Apple are still fighting over the PC business…kind of fun and kind of amazing.

The consistent theme running through all of these is familiarity, but with a new twist. After all, Intel has been trotting out new CPU designs for a very long time; Acer is known for targeting lower-end PCs; nVidia’s graphics processing prowess is widely acknowledged; and it seems, at some level, Apple and Microsoft have been battling each other forever. But in each case, there are important new twists and developments that suggest companies, and indeed an entire industry, that is working to reinvent itself for the modern mobile era. [pullquote]To be sure, we’re far from being in a new golden era for PCs. But, we’re also far from seeing an extinction of the species.”[/pullquote]

To be sure, we’re far from being in a new golden era for PCs—there are still many challenges ahead and some of the recent positive news could turn out to be somewhat short-lived. But, we’re also far from seeing an extinction of the species. Instead, we’re seeing a maturation of viewpoints, an acknowledgment of reality and, arguably, an evolution of the species. The process hasn’t always been easy or pretty, but as time passes, it seems increasingly clear that PCs, in some form, will be around for some time to come.

As I’ve demonstrated in previous columns, PCs are still being actively used by all consumer age groups; they continue to be the dominant productivity devices in businesses of all sizes and they’re still in demand by many consumers. Many in the tech press and blogosphere would have had us believe that most people were going to (or already had) suddenly abandon(ed) their PCs for tablets, and the old clunkers were never to be seen again. But the facts simply do not support this view. The change process across the majority of mainstream users usually goes much slower than those on the cutting edge expect it to, and that has clearly been the case with PCs.

In fact, given the expected boom in larger-size smartphones, pairing a convertible PC with one of those large phones could prove to be exactly the combination that many in the mainstream will start to move towards. And if they do—and I expect they will—it should continue to breathe life into PCs for the foreseeable future.