Chaos Rules in Land of the PC

Michael Vizard

Things at the Consumer Electronics Show(CES) always seem a little chaotic at this time of year. But a passing perusal of the state of the PC market these days will tell even the most casual observer that the inmates are running the asylum.

While everyone recognizes that progress marches on, it's pretty clear that systems based on new Intel Core processors are going to essentially obviate many PC systems based on previous Intel processor technologies that were just recently introduced. PC manufacturers, who seem to have been caught by waves of successive processor families, appear to be trying to differentiate on pricing. But the price of PCs has fallen so far in the last five years that there is very little room to maneuver. And customers know that because they are buying a PC that will be with them for the next four or five years, there's very little reason to try and save a couple of hundred dollars just to wind up with an inferior machine three years from now.

Of course, the chaos doesn't stop there. PC manufacturers are also trying to maintain a distinction between corporate and consumer PCs. But given the rise of graphics, video and other Web 2.0 applications in the enterprise, the requirements of corporate users and business users are rapidly blending together. In the not too distant future, maintaining this artificial differentiation of systems is going to make no sense to anybody.

Then just to make things interesting, we have seen first the rise of netbooks and now smartbooks. These systems run on a range of processors from not only Intel and AMD, but also Qualcomm and NVidia. How well these systems will do over the long term remains to be seen. The current state of the economy, coupled with ubiquitous Web access, seems to make these devices popular. But full-fledged notebooks are going to come down in size and price pretty quickly, and Lenovo just turned the market on its head with a notebook that can double as netbook.

As the PC market develops, it's also pretty clear that multi-core processors will make it possible for mobile computing devices to have multiple personalities, so the need for all these different classes of devices may very well become unnecessary as machines get smaller, more power-efficient and able to dynamically adjust to different use cases.

In the meantime, chaos seems to rule the day. You can even buy a 14-inch and a 15-inch version of the same PC for the same price, which just goes to show that not only are the processor technologies out of control, so too are the screen manufacturers thanks to the shift to wide-screen displays that is largely the result of demand for new televisions.

Unfortunately, while all this diversity may be viewed as a sign of a robust industry, this kind of chaos tends to result in customers sitting on their hands waiting to see how things sort themselves out.  And all that usually means is waiting longer to take advantage of the next generation of applications that will improve end user productivity. So probably the best thing that PC vendors could start doing in the next six months is to start thinking about how to get out of their own way.

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