Personal Computers Aren’t Too Good

They’re just good enough. The other day the Wall Street Journal reported, rather breathlessly, that “PC sales are in free fall”:

The personal computer is in crisis, and getting little help from Microsoft Corp.’s Windows 8 software once seen as a possible savior.

Research firm IDC issued an alarming report Wednesday for PC makers such as Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., saying world-wide shipments of laptops and desktops fell 14% in the first quarter from a year earlier. That is the sharpest drop since IDC began tracking this data in 1994 and marks the fourth straight quarter of declines.

Gartner Inc., a rival research firm, estimated global shipments sank 11.2%, which it called the worst drop since the first quarter of 2001. Gartner blamed the rise of tablets and smartphones, which are sapping demand for personal computers.

Will Oremus says it’s because “they’ve gotten too good”:

It’s certainly true that people are increasingly spending money on new tablets and smartphones rather than new computers. But reports of the PC’s demise are grossly exaggerated. If the PC is dead, what am I typing this on? If the PC is dead, what are office-workers all over the world sitting in front of all day while they work? The reason people aren’t buying new PCs isn’t that they don’t need a PC. It’s that, for the most part, they’re getting along just fine with the one they already have.

I agree that various other kinds of computers including smartphones and tablets are eating into PC sales. I also agree that “they’re getting along just fine” with the PCs they already have.

However, to really understand why the market for desktop and notebook computers has declined you need to go back about twenty years. From the early 90s to the early Aughts many businesses replaced their desktop and portable computers roughly every three years. Generally, that wasn’t because they weren’t working or not able to perform the tasks they were needed for. It was to suit Microsoft’s development cycle. At that point Microsoft was releasing new major revisions roughly every three years: Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows XP (released in 2001). Each of those major revisions preserved the investment in training and ancillary software of its predecessors while being so much more reliable, secure, or capable that sticking with the old version could hardly be justified.

Gauging its new releases to suit its revenue goals rather than the needs of its customers is nothing new for Microsoft. However, I think that Microsoft has made a titanic miscalculation with Windows 8. Windows 8 takes just too much retraining and as well as I’ve been able to tell gives Microsoft’s corporate customers nothing they particularly want. Why should they replace their inventories of Windows 7 desktops and laptops like good little soldiers to further Microsoft’s needs rather than their own?

I suspect that Microsoft sees Windows 8 as sacrificing a knight to gain the opponent’s queen. I doubt that it will work out that way.

Microsoft released Windows 95, appropriately enough, in 1995. That was just as the tidal wave that was Internet connectivity was just beginning to crest. Windows 95 did not include either a web browser or TCP/IP as built-in parts of the operating system (although they were available as add-ons). In 1996 in a move of great agility for a company that had been pooh-poohing the Internet for years, Microsoft released Windows 95 SR 1 and that did, indeed, include Internet Explorer 2.0 and TCP/IP as standard parts of the operating system.

That was nearly twenty years ago. We’ll see if Microsoft still has the ability to recover from major strategic errors.

PC sales aren’t in free fall. They’re just seeking their natural level without the planned obsolescence that affected the market for so long. The PC market is a mature one. There will continue to be millions even billions of people huddled behind display devices at the keyboards of their desktops and notebook computers and that will be the case for the foreseeable future. For reading their email or surfing the web more and more people will use tablets or their phones.

One more note: nobody ever bought a smartphone or tablet to play first person shooters and recently the PC game business has been doing better than the game console business. PCs are far from going the way of the punched card or even the 3.5 inch diskette. The computer ecosphere is just getting more diversified.

17 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds

    I can’t type on a tablet and I can’t run a Keynote (Power Point) off a tablet. So I’m stuck with my MacBook Air which I have to say, I love above all other previous computers.

    By the way, I thought you might be obscurely gratified that the “Big Evil” in a book I’m writing is a health care billionaire.

  • Icepick

    One more note: nobody ever bought a smartphone or tablet to play first person shooters and recently the PC game business has been doing better than the game console business. PCs are far from going the way of the punched card or even the 3.5 inch diskette.

    But I imagine more and more gamers will become “hard-core” types that build their own “hot-rods”, or get someone to build one for them.

  • I think that Steam for Linux is a very important development. If it matures as I suspect it will, it could put another dent into the Windows marketplace.

  • TastyBits

    A lot of PC users (laptop & desktop) were actually tablet users, but they did not have a product. The netbook tried to be the product, but it was still more complicated than a tablet. One problem with tablets is battery charge.

    I expect Windows 8 to go the way of Windows Vista.

    I am a single user, and I hate being tied to Steam. I paid for the damn game, and as long as I am not pirating it, I should be able to sell it. My stepson loves it, but he does mostly online gameplay. I do not get the Linux angle. Few games are ported to Mac, and a Mac is fairly trouble free.

    I intend to pick-up a few more copies of Windows 7 before the close date.

  • steve

    Windows 8 sux. Really. I have been a Mac guy for years, but bought a PC laptop a few months ago to run a program I cannot on Mac, and a couple of other reason. Unusable, unless I want to invest a lot of time into it. I don’t, so I won’t.


  • Andy

    Haven’t tried Win 8 – have no intention of giving it a look until I’m forced to. I just got Office 2013 which I think it just a bad, bloated version of Office 2010.

    Interestingly, my federal government agency just received a tech refresh of new computers and they all have Win7. It’s unlikely we’ll go to Windows 8 before the next tech refresh, supposedly in 3 years.

  • Brett

    OnLive was premature, but I do think we’ll see more services like it that would diminish the need to personally own a high-end gaming machine even further – and thus diminish the need to upgrade to PCs even further.

  • TimH

    I’m not a huge Windows 8 fan, but at least its an attempt at innovation. Apple hasn’t made any significant changes to OS X since the early 2000s (from a user experience perspective).

    I’m concerned that no one is working to actually make PCs work better – they’re essential business tools and I think making them more productive tools could add a lot to our economy. (I’m not convinced that Microsoft’s answer – add touchscreens to your PC – is the right one).

  • Kim

    Got a cite for the computer game doing better than the console game?

Leave a Comment