Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Intel: The PC Market Isn’t a Train Wreck. No, Really.

time-to-buyLast night, chipmaker Intel sought to make the case that the market for personal computers isn’t quite the train wreck it appears to be.

The venue was a gathering of journalists in a luxury box at New York’s Yankee Stadium, during last night’s 14-7 rout of the Los Angeles Angels. The latest and greatest Ultrabooks from companies like Acer, Lenovo, Dell, Toshiba and Sony were on display, all of them using the latest version of Intel’s Core processors. Most of them were designed with displays that do some form of tablet-like gymnastics, like the Dell XPS 12 and the Lenovo Yoga twisting this way and that.

The event coincided with the release of the findings of an Intel-sponsored survey of 3,977 U.S. adults taken in June by the research firm IDC, proclaiming that “there’s never been a better time to buy a new PC.” The highlights:

  • 97 percent of respondents still consider their PCs to be their primary computing device.
  • Of those, 41 percent say they intend to buy a new machine in the coming year; that number rises to 54 percent for parents and millennials.
  • They consider access to their PC essential for daily existence. When asked what they would give up before losing access to their PC for a week, 73 percent said exercise, 71 said candy and sweets, 65 percent said caffeine, 58 percent said TV and 33 percent said their car.
  • Total time spent on computing devices of any kind amounts to 43 hours a week, but more than half of that time — about 21 hours — is spent in front of a PC.

The survey also contains some nuggets that are perennial talking points anytime there’s a perceived slowdown in PC sales: The machines that most consumers own are, on average, about four years old. As such, they’re slowing down, and time spent waiting for boot-ups and other things is getting longer and more frustrating. Eventually, there has to be a logical moment at which all of these factors would come together and create an upswell of desire for new PCs among consumers, right?

And yet it hasn’t come. The last round of quarterly sales results from IDC and Gartner showed that global sales trends are still the worst ever since records have been kept. Consumers in mature markets, like the U.S. and Europe, and in developing markets, like Latin America and Asia, just aren’t bothering with PCs the way they used to.

I talked a little with Merlin Kister, a brand manager in Intel’s consumer PC group, who said that at least part of the problem happens in the retail stores. All those notebooks that twist into tablet-like configurations tend to look like plain old notebooks on the store shelves. And, more often than not, they’re locked down in such a way that demonstrating the ways to flip the display around is impossible. They’re working on new ways to present them.

That won’t hurt, but the fundamental question has less to do with creating tweener devices that are intended to create a viable alternative to tablets like the iPad, than with making the PC experience itself as good as it can be. And the underlying complications of Windows still remain. Managing large troves of media files, photos and documents and backing them up are still complicated tasks. So is moving that stuff from an older PC to a newer one.

Tablets are popular because they’re easy to use. Media and photos and other files that consumers tend to use never have be moved between one device and the other because they live on cloud services and thus don’t have to move at all. They’re also easy to maintain. There are no complicated maintenance tasks with a tablet, other than the occasional software upgrade. If something goes wrong with the hardware, they’re easy to replace.

But where the PC shines is in productivity. As much as consumers like their tablets, when it comes to getting anything important done, the PC is the tool they use to do it: 83 percent of respondents to the IDC survey said they are more productive on a PC than on a smartphone or tablet. This, I think, represents the path that PC makers might consider in seeking to arrest their alarming decline.

Their message should perhaps be less about creating machines that act like tablets, and more about creating PCs that are awesome for getting things done, whether it’s crafting a resume that gets you a new job, editing a home movie you’ll cherish forever, or managing a portfolio or personal investments to ensure you’ll have enough money to retire when the time comes. Maybe focus less on blurring the lines between one device and the other, and more on making them all work in complete, productive harmony. It might work. At least a little.


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