PC sales are up, tablet sales are down, and everyone is wondering what exactly data users want when it comes to accessing the digital ecosystem.
In truth, however, the answer is more subtle than many observers realize because, like data functionality itself, the type of client device is increasing in diversity, making it difficult to pin down what exactly people want and how they want to use it.
First, some numbers. According to IDC, PC sales in developed markets are set to grow by 5.6 percent this year, following several years of seemingly endless declines. Drivers for this renewed activity range from the end of support for Windows XP to the rise of Chrome OS to the fading interest in handhelds, tablets and smartphones as full-service digital devices. This last point is key, given that it suggests the knowledge workforce finally recognizes that mobile devices may be very good at what they do – namely, communications, file sharing and social media – but they cannot provide the high-level performance required of many traditional enterprise functions like word processing and data analysis.
The question, though, is whether this rebound is real or simply the final gasp of a dying breed. Tablets are gaining increased functionality at a steady clip, particularly as cloud services and applications make up for their lack of storage and processing capabilities. Some industry watchers, in fact, are predicting the rise of the “super tablet” that features 64-bit processing, multi-GB RAM and even several hundred gigabytes of storage capacity that would push the technology beyond the “toy” phase and into the realm of full-service enterprise productivity. However, as Tech Crunch’s Peter Yared points out, this is not likely to happen until PC sales start to slide again or the top PC manufacturers and software developers decide the time is right to start cannibalizing their legacy systems.
But once the current refresh cycle winds down, won’t we see the PC start to slide again? Not necessarily, says Intel’s Tom Garrison in a ZDNet article. In the past, PC sales have largely mirrored the broader economy. When times are tough, companies start to reduce their hardware spending and increase the number of layoffs. Now that hiring is on the rebound, many of those workers will need new desktops, along with tablets, smartphones and even centralized IT equipment like servers and storage. So if a rising tide lifts all boats, so too should a recovering economy restore the fortunes of a broad swath of computing equipment.
And Intel, for one, is backing up that contention with continued research and development into PC solutions. The latest release is the new Core M processor, the first in the new Broadwell line that is expected to support a wide range of new form factors for the PC. These include the so-called 2-in-1 devices that feature both PC and tablet design elements and are capable of high performance without clunky support systems like fans and AC power. The device is built on a 14nm processor and draws about 4.5 watts in a dual-core configuration, with clock speeds ranging from 800MHz to 2.6GHz.
So in the end, it could very well be that neither tablets nor PCs will “win” (or lose) the client wars – that perhaps there is a perfect form factor that provides a happy medium between performance and mobility. Such a dream device would alter the way people interact with data and, by extension, each other, but this wouldn’t be the first time that technology will have changed the human condition.
So when it comes to figuring out what digital consumers want, a key factor is ensuring that the new platform delivers on what they need, even if the consumers themselves don’t know yet what that is.
Arthur Cole writes about infrastructure for IT Business Edge. Cole has been covering the high-tech media and computing industries for more than 20 years, having served as editor of TV Technology, Video Technology News, Internet News and Multimedia Weekly. His contributions have appeared in Communications Today and Enterprise Networking Planet and as web content for numerous high-tech clients like TwinStrata, Carpathia and NetMagic.