PCs Are Changing Their Spots but not Learning New Tricks
I know, I mushed up two sayings trying to convey what I think is the biggest issue with current PCs: we still do the same things we used to do ten years ago. We might do them faster, and everywhere we want rather than slow and chained to our desk, but the way we do them has not really changed.
This is Computex week, so we have seen a long list of announcements coming out of the show in Taipei over the weekend all focused on PCs. We heard about new silicon platforms from AMD, Intel, Nvidia, original designs that sport dual screens like the ZenBook Pro Duo by Asus and new materials like the new wood-paneled Envi from HP as well as integrated 5G connectivity with Qualcomm and Lenovo’s Project Limitless. All very exciting developments for a market that has seen some new life injected into it. No matter which numbers you look at, PC sales have stabilized, and ASPs are growing.
Looking Beyond Hardware: Software First…
Nobody though, is talking about software yet. Even two weeks ago, when Lenovo introduced the prototype of the foldable Thinkpad, there was no talk about software. Software is, at the end of the day, what will empower users to take advantage of all these new designs and capabilities. Giving me the options to have a foldable screen or even two screens but not changing the way the underlying software and apps work will do very little to make me feel my investment – which I am sure for some of these devices will not be insignificant – is worthwhile.
The burden of the platform is on Microsoft, and if we want to broaden the conversation to computing in general, on Google and Apple. And it has been fascinating to me how different platforms have dealt with apps thus far. In different ways, but I feel that both Microsoft and Google never really addressed the app ecosystem problem head-on. Microsoft focused on delivering great first-party apps but did not seem to put the same effort into engaging with developers to deliver exceptional experiences beyond gaming. Google also concentrated on great first party apps and worked on a cross-platform solution to make it easier for Chromebooks to leverage apps designed for Android which more often than not leads to just ok experiences but does not take apps to their full potential. Apple is in the process to give developers the option to leverage the work they put into iOS for MacOS, given that ecosystem never grew as far and wide.
Look back at your usage of both phones and PCs over the past ten years and see how much what we do with our phones has changed compared to what we do with our PCs. We might be taking our PCs with us everywhere and even have them connected, we might have added a little touch and pen support, but what we do with them has not changed much at all.
I strongly believe that for new form factors such as foldable and dual screens both OS and apps need to be redesigned from the ground up with the intent to make our workflows richer or easier.
… Intelligence Second
From a platform perspective, I expect Microsoft, Google, and Apple to deliver more all around intelligence too. While some brands have been talking about smart PCs, the focus so far has been on smart hardware rather than an intelligent experience at a workflow level. So for instance, a PC might change its security setting based on the WiFi that you connect it to or the privacy display might turn on when the camera detects a person next to you.
Intelligence in smartphones is more and more focusing on delivering a very personal and tailored experience across all the apps that we use, and I would love to see the same applied to computing.
The ability to use AI to understand the way I use my PC through the use of Microsoft Graph or Google Assistant and have my computer present apps in such a way as to facilitate my workflow and optimize the use of computing form factor and power could be a total game changer. Think about the routines you have set up with Alexa for your connected home and then think about how powerful it would be to set up routines on your PC based on usage. From simple things like pairing the apps you use for a specific task and presenting you with a screen that has them all ready for you as you start your task. Or delivering you the information you need before you look for it, like your calendar info when trying to schedule a meeting or the translation of a passage when reading something that has a foreign text in it. Do you think this is impossible? If you consider what Microsoft Office can deliver today with the smart editor in Word and design suggestions in PowerPoint or smart replies in Gmail you see we are well on our way. I just want a systemwide approach so that intelligence can really break free.
As much as our smartphones have become our first go to for many of our computing needs, most of us are still pretty consistent in turning to PCs for work. We might complain they are not as sexy as our phones and lag in some functionalities that we so much love in our phones like instant-on and battery life, but overall I think we have become quite resigned to accept things the way they are.
Microsoft and Google, and to a lesser extent, Apple, have added intelligence to their apps and services but that intelligence is not yet permeating from those first-party apps like Office and G Suite to cross apps experiences. Partly this can be explained by the fact that some of those services drive revenue and therefore intelligence is used as a differentiator, but partly I think today’s limitations are driven by the fact that AI is considered as differentiation in enterprise but not in the consumer space. So an enterprise that has access to the Microsoft Graph can deliver an intelligent workflow, assuming they care about user experience, but as a consumer, I am just not given the same level of access. This makes very little sense to me given how much more engagement platforms would be driving by opening up their AI capabilities to developers in a similar way they do with APIs. I bet consumers would even pay for that as the return would be evident to them and I do wonder if Google’s learnings on Android will result in a much more intelligent solution on Chromebooks.
Unless Microsoft, Google, and Apple recognize that PCs need to catch up with smartphones in the overall experience, they deliver and not just the features they offer, consumers will continue to see smartphones as a superior computing platform even with the physical limitation of their current form factors. Failing to address these shortcomings in a timely fashion leaves the PC market open to more disruption coming from AR and VR.