Opinion: Can You Blame the PC Crash on the iPad?

Gartner expects just 3.8 percent growth for 2011, which is down from 10.5 percent last spring, down from 15.9 percent in November 2010 and down from 18.1 percent in early 2010. If that trend continues, the PC industry should consider itself lucky if there is any growth at all this year – especially if we remember that Gartner overestimated every single PC shipment forecast in 2010 and was even 0.5 points off from the actual result at the end of November 2010 (a 14.3 percent forecast versus a 13.8 percent actual 2010 result that was published in early 2011).

You may question the value of the word "forecast." If Gartner's original January 2010 forecast of 445 million units for 2011 has shrunk by a staggering 93 million units, or a stunning 26 percent to only 352 million, you can only hope that the reasonable mind has learned that a business shouldn’t be built on any IT forecast that predicts a scenario that extends further than three months. I will leave that topic for another article and will focus instead on some explanations about why the PC industry is virtually going down in flames. Some may argue that this is an exaggeration, as PC makers are still selling gazillions of PCs, but let's agree that the PC market has been stuck in a ditch for a while.

Gartner's press release blames the downturn, in part, on growing economic concerns and the fact that consumers aren't willing to spend money as readily as they did prior to the current recession. The other part is based on an argument that we have been hearing for some time: changing user behavior, lacking a compelling argument to buy a PC, and a trend that people aren't replacing their PC as frequently as they were. Let's just call this problem by its name: iPad.

Think about this for a moment: Can the iPad really be blamed for the current issues in the PC industry? Sure, it's a big hit and it controls the mindshare and excitement in computing these days, but does Apple really have the power to bring an entire industry down to its knees? I doubt it. The iPad has not killed PC growth by itself. My claim: The (off-the-shelf) PC has become incredibly boring. Look at the PC lineup in your local Best Buy or Walmart and I rest my case. There is absolutely no innovation left in the common PC that would convince you to go out today and buy a new one – a PC that would easily convince you to wait in line, spend $1,000 or so, and then hurry home to try it out.

While there are PC manufacturers that complain about low margins and others that simply try to get rid of an amazing business (HP, anyone?), there is Apple, which is outgrowing the PC market quarter after quarter with a tight and attractive product line. Apple isn't just growing because it is Apple and because it understands product marketing better than any other IT company on this planet. Apple is outgrowing the market because it is able to design and build desirable PCs for relatively affordable prices. The closest PC manufacturer that has approached Apple's model was VoodooPC when it was integrated into HP. Unfortunately, HP strangled it for reasons I don't quite understand.

Looking back at the history of the PC, I would argue that the PC has not changed much in 30 years. The usage model today is the same as it was with the IBM PC 5150 in 1981. The notebook today may look different, have prettier colors and come in a thin form factor, but the idea is the same as it was with the first true notebook, the Compaq LTE from 1984 or the first sub-notebook, the Apple Powerbook 100 from 1989. In notebooks, for example, there's still the LCD screen, there's still a keyboard, and the screen on the keyboard is still folded to pack it up. Apple is quite obviously thinking about the form factor, and it is Apple that is leading trends such as the Macbook Air or even the iPad, which could be viewed as a radical redesign of the compact notebook. The last innovation from PC manufacturers I can remember was the netbook, which was essentially killed by lack of innovation. What we see lately is a trend that is established by Apple and an entire industry that is frantically trying to copy Apple, whether that is the Macbook Air (Ultrabook), the smartphone or the tablet. This may sound harsh, but I don't believe that the PC industry can return to its former glory when it is following Apple.

You may not have guessed it, but I am actually very passionate about the PC industry and its accomplishments over the past three decades. The better half of the day I spend talking to hardware and software makers, and I find it somewhat surprising that there is the general idea that there really is no iPad problem and no economy problem. It seems that many share the view that the problem is innovation and a lack thereof. What would it take for you to wait in line for a PC? What are the characteristics of a device that you find truly desirable in a PC? How important is the CPU, the GPU and the hard drive? How important are usage models and how important is the evolution of the keyboard, for example? Are these (example) questions we should ask before we paint last year's PC in a new color this year? Probably.

I don't believe that the iPad is the cause of squashing growth in the PC market, other than the fact that it is a fresh way to interact with a computing device. Just like Apple, PC manufacturers will have to innovate to be successful. If Gartner's latest forecast doesn't communicate that there is a need for innovation, then I don't know what does.

  • christop
    Can You Blame the PC Crash on the iPad? No.. The Ipad is so under powered compared to a nice laptop or a desktop. I like a huge hd in my system a good bit of ram and a killer gpu. The Ipad has none of these.
  • AndrewMD
    Today most consumers want to just get on the Internet, check facebook or check emails. The PC or even laptop have become the slowest part of the equation. The instant on feature that tablets have and even smart phones out weigh their slower processors and lack of memory.

    Someone asked me a similar question a couple months ago, it was around the reason I carry an iPad to most of my meetings, the answer was simple, it does what I need it to do fairly quickly.

  • ojas
    LOL. I'm so used to this kind of article now...
  • -Fran-
    To answer the title: nope.

    It's the software development cycle that doesn't require "new hardware" to perform decently.

    People "don't need" more than what today's being offered to them. MS Office works fine even on Athlon X2 from the s939 era with 2GB of RAM, so imagine a CPU after that era... A C2D or C2Q still delivers for office work. Hell, even for development, as long as you have 4GB+ RAM you're still fine.

    So, nope. From my POV I'd say it's a software thing. Apple and in particular the iPad are just "anomalies" in the long PC develop timeline.

  • The place where innovation is needed is in I/O. Where are my 3D high definition contact lenses? Why can't I talk to my computer (well, I CAN, but it's stupid most of the time...faster to type.) Where is my holographic user interface that lets me wave my arms around and drag glowing icons through the air? Whirring boxes and pictures on a screen are so...last century.
  • johnners2981
    No, no I can't. Article closed.
    Crap Economy
    5 year old dual core computers run typical software just fine
    Normal people (not enthusiasts like us) get annoyed, not excited, when the OS changes.
    WTF would I ever upgrade? My computer does everything I need it to.

    The best case I can make to convince people to upgrade their system is getting a multi-core CPU and an OS that can multi-task just so they can switch between apps.

    Pretty much everyone has that now, so why would they ever upgrade?

    The PC industry is it's own worst enemy for incremental technology increases. eg: Intel removed hyper-threading from 1 gen, and then re-added hyper-threading to get some more sales on that same gen? That is banditry that does not go unnoticed.

    From my perspective, they did their best to penetrate all markets, succeeded, and those markets are now over saturated. There are strategies to follow when this happens in business, but to me it seems nothing really has changed in the market for 30 years, with the exception of price drops.
  • chomlee
    People are under the impression that everyone is a power user and that since the tablet devices areen't as powerfull, they will never take over the market. What you forget is the average person (80-90% of computer users) does not need speed, they just need to access emails, youtube, netflix, etc. The tablets and smartphones can do that.

    I have build my own pcs for the last 15 years and I have found that most of my access is using my acer tablet, my wife uses her Ipad 2 and our notebooks and netbooks basically sit around collecting dust. Occasionally, my wife might go onto the desktop to type an important letter but that is it. So, to me, the market is just going to get smaller and smaller for the pc, and bigger for the tablet (not neccessarily just the Ipad).
  • cTs Corvette
    The lack of growth in the PC sector is due to one simple fact-computers have gotten so powerful, and Windows has gotten so stable, that it's very rare to have any sort of problem with them, and they are fast enough to handle pretty much anything you throw at them, so the average consumer has no reason to go out and buy a new PC every couple of years. That 5 year old Dell is still chugging happily along, and still runs Word and Netflix like a champ. And in actuality, even though I'm a hardcore gamer, the only thing I've replaced in my PC in years is the GPU. Nothing else needs to be upgraded.
  • campb292
    I need one of these so bad because I can't go 5 minutes without checking my facebook. I was like at the like drivethru yesterday and I so wished I like had one so I could check my facebook. I was like, "Oh no, it has been 5 minutes since I checked my facebook."