PC Renaissance

The world of computing has been turned topsy turvy by mobile devices – light, mobile, long-battery life and most important – touch screen operable. Smartphones and tablets  from Apple have lead the way; but now the Wintel Empire Strikes Back with ultrabooks , convertibles and 2-in-one PCs. But what may shape this latest twist in computing may be mice , pens, andI/O devices, Bear with me as I explain the latest PC tales.

This last quarter, 2Q 2013,  Intel finally announced a small  increases in PC sales  of 1.4% . But in the first quarter,  1Q 2013, PC sales declined by 14% and that after after 4 straight quarterly  declines in PC  sales.  To say that WinTel is hurting is no exaggeration. But both Microsoft and Intel are responding to the inroads made by smartphones and tablets. Microsoft has a free update with Windows 8.1 Blue coming and the Windows Phone 8 interface is being synced ever more closely to the PC Windows 8.

Intel in the meantime has really primed its Core iseries chips and chipsets such that their performance are beginning to seriously challenge the ARM monopoly in mobile device and tablets.  For example, the Haswell Core iseries chips are delivering ultrabook battery life in the 9-14/hour range with significant 50% or better improvements in graphics performance bench marks. In a similar fashion, the Intel Atom processors now deliver significant battery life and performance improvements to challenge the ARM dominance in the mobile space.  In sum, Intel chips and chipsets now pose a disruptive influence on Arm and mobile devices that they had posed for Intel five years ago.

What Form Factor Will Prevail?

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iPad and other Mobile devices

These improvements in the basic CPU chip performance present  both PC and smartphone+tablet vendors with a conundrum. For the past five years, smartphones and then tablets have been the darlings of consumer electronics propelling innovations leader Apple to quarterly sales that nearly match and sometimes exceed Intel’s annual figures [for example, Intel 2012 annual  revenues were $53.3B while Apple’s quarterly revenues for year end 2012 were $54.1B].

Clearly mobile devices have taken market share from PCs. The question is how much and for how long. Just a year ago most observers would argue that PCs were in for a drubbing as standalone PCs would go the way of the Dodo with laptops and ultrabooks not far behind. But the improvement in power savings, performance speed , and packaging of Intel and AMD chipsets has changed the market equations fundamentally

Now the question is what  computing form factor will prevail – PCs or mobile devices? It is not obvious for a number of reasons.  Design convergence plus super Intel and AMD improvements in x86 chip  architecture have changed the ball game dramatically.

Lets look at the convergence phenomenon. Even Apple has been stunned and surprised by the success of ever larger Android smartphones from the likes of Motorola, HTC, and especially Samsung. The design convergence among mobile devices stretches across most mobile forms:
1)Smartphones and tablets are getting bigger in size and rapidly approaching more graphically empowered laptops and even workstations;
2)But these graphic performance and screen size enhancements challenge the light weight and size advantage of mobile devices while incurring power penalties as well;
3)At the same time, laptops and ultrabooks are trimming down. First, they are becoming touchscreen capable [you will not be able to buy a PC without touchscreen capabilities for the 2013 Holiday season]. Also laptops and ultrabooks are becoming thinner, lighter, and with the help of Intel  Atom and and Haswell chips plus AMD’s Temash and and Richland chipsets – all delivering  faster performance and  top of the line battery life;

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4)Finally, inspired by Microsoft’s Surface Pro and Asus Transformer devices, PCs in a convertible form factor like 2 in 1 hybrids  are proliferating. For desk side business work that profits mightily from a keyboard and mouse, use the full size convertible laptop or ultrabook. Then for a meeting or travel work detach the screen and use it as a tablet with 9-14 hours of battery life available in a fully charged detached PC tablet.

Blackberry CEO Thorsten Heins has famously said that tablet are not a winning form factor in the long term. However,  Gartner forecasts the tablet market to more than double by 2017. That’s a growth from 116.1 million units shipped last year, to 197.2 million this year, and 468 million units projected to ship in 2017. How does one reconcile the difference?

Partially this is the difference between business use of computing devices  vs consumer uses. Already, smartphones and tablets have established that there is market for light, easy to use devices for passive media consumption – browsing, simple game playing, video andpicture taking and watching. But in the business world smartphones and tablets are BYOD-Bring Your Own Device for most companies rather than company paid for. Partially this is because the keyboard, mice and bring screens are vital in most productivity tasks. But also there are megatons of business programs that simply are unavailable on smartphones and tablets. So with the proliferation of  2 in 1 convertibles and hybrid laptops  that can be quickly converted from laptop to tablet [from business to passive mobile tasks] – one can see why business is hedging its bets.

Last year for back to school and Christmas shopping, , this type of PC convertible  was more myth than reality. This year, the tables are turned – both smartphones and especially  tablets will have formidable competition. And the PCs will have the advantage that their software is geared for keyboard shortcuts and rich mouse interaction along with touch screen operations. As a thought experiment, figure out how you will do cut and paste operations or drag and drop of files on a PC versus a smartphone or tablet. Straightforward on a PC versus quite variable or impossible  on different mobile devices.

In general, PCs have a decided I/O advantage  with touchscreens available in Windows 7 [limited support] and Windows 8 [broad support] with only Apple Mac lacking any real touchscreen operations. Finally, as noted above, PCs are  very I/O device/operation  adept in contrast to  mobile devices.

In sum, mobile devices have lost their light weight, trim size, touch screen operations, and long battery life advantages over PCs and especially convertible laptops. But laptops and PCs bring a much richer set of input and control options with keyboards, mouse, stylus, touchpad, game ports and touchscreens available. Also, add the huge apps  and programming advantage that PCs have.

The programming advantage is non-trivial as more languages, tools, and opportunity are available for PC developers. True with the Mac and Windows Store, the two major PC OS vendors are trying to establish the same control that Android, Blackberry, iOS, and  Windows Phone 8 have installed in the mobile space  with their average of 30% runtime take for all apps sold in their respective Stores, many pricing level controls,plus sometimes arbitrary validation and approval processes. As a developer I am gravitating back to the PC and the Web.

Mobile Device Momentum

Certainly mobile devices cannot be counted out. They still have the advantage of simple, easy operations – no need to learn all those keyboard, mouse, and deep menu /iconbar commands. And mobile device will generally have a price advantage over their PC counterparts. Also with their unique sensors such as on-board accelerometer, gyro, GPS, NFC and others – sensors  allow mobile devices to provide services just not possible with most PCs – even convertible PCs.

Finally, the lead that mobile devices have gained in the battle of media consumption gadgets will be hard to displace.Simple, it just works is convenience that is hard to beat when a PC is really the Swiss Army Knife of computing. But for the first time in a longtime, PCs and ultrabooks will be on a much more competitive footing with mobile devices.

A PC Renaissance with Fragmentation?

The PC Renaissance faces much more than formidable competition from mobile devices. The Cloud is now taking over a broader set of tasks traditionally reserved for PCs or servers beyond traditional backup and recovery tasks reserved for the Cloud. Google’s Chromebook, Adobe Creative Cloud and the broad SaaS-Software As A Service movement are signs of the ever pervasive Cloud Computing initiative. Also the serious delay in HTML5 agreement among major vendors on Web Offline standards deprecates the role of the PC. Even Google, a pioneer in Web offline operations, has reversed its field and is now stalling on PC  and tablet offline support

So standalone PC hardware+software which has permeated computing to date,  now cedes to mobile devices chunks of media consumption and game playing while business applications, key creative development processes and big data services increasingly belong  to the Cloud. For developers, this means an ever-widening set of APIs, devices and services that they must sync and integrate with. For vendors, there will be price/performance battles ahead as Mobile, PC and Cloud software and hardware compete for customer advantage in a fast evolving computing market.

For consumers and businesses this continued software delivery  fragmentation in how computing is done represents  both opportunity and problem. There is no doubt that a PC Renaissance is taking place which gives both consumers and businesses better choices. But at the same time, the fragmentation in how and where computing is most effectively done  – some combination of  mobile device, convertible PC, dedicated server, Cloud and SaaS – presents some tough, perplexing  choices as well.

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