On Aug. 12, the IBM PC — the classic machine from which all modern Windows computers descend — turned 30. IBM’s Mark Dean, who helped engineer the original PC, commemorated the anniversary by congratulating his company for having abandoned the PC business back in 2005. He declared that we live in a “post-PC era” and said his main machine now is a tablet. Some celebration!
Less than a week later, HP — today’s biggest PC brand — had some news of its own. CEO Léo Apotheker announced that the company was thinking about spinning off or selling its PC group, and decided to kill its TouchPad tablet after only six weeks on the market. “Is the personal computer dead? HP, the largest PC maker, thinks so,” read the headline on one story about HP’s bombshell. (The company later put up a confusing website claiming that its PC business’s future was brighter than ever.) (See a brief history of the computer.)
With all this gloom in the air, you couldn’t blame Microsoft p.r. honcho Frank Shaw for getting a tad defensive. In his understandably Windows-centric worldview, PCs still do many things that tablets (and smart phones) can’t do, making the latter devices “companions” to Windows boxes. He argued that we now find ourselves in a “PC-plus” era, not a post-PC one.
Declaring the PC to be toast is indeed a bizarre overreaction — one that says more about tech pundits’ eternal love of knee-jerk hyperbole than anything else. Research firm IDC estimates that 361.5 million PCs will sell worldwide this year and that the number will increase to 541.5 million in 2015. That may not be heady growth, but it’s also not rigor mortis. (By contrast, another firm, iSuppli, says 60 million tablets will sell this year and that it expects 275.3 million of them to sell in 2015.)
As for HP’s dramatic move, the company seemed to think it was reacting to some sort of sea change. CEO Apotheker kept referring to a “tablet effect” that had impacted the PC business and caused HP to reconsider its commitment to it. No elaboration on his part was required: it was obvious that he was talking about Apple’s iPad and saying that its massive success was hurting sales of traditional PCs. (Read about owning multiple Web-savvy devices in the post-PC era.)
The thing is, the notion of HP ditching PCs isn’t a visionary reaction to the latest developments in the industry. Analysts have been suggesting that HP do something like this since … well, at least since 2001. That’s when HP was attempting to acquire Compaq, and Forbes‘ Dan Ackman noted that “some analysts have suggested HP exit the money-losing PC business altogether.”
When Ackman wrote that, the iPad wasn’t even a gleam in Steve Jobs’ eye. But the PC industry’s fierce competition and razor-thin margins made it a long, hard slog of a business, just as it is today. CEO Apotheker, a veteran of big-business software company SAP, wants to refocus HP on profitable products and services for large companies. If he’d been running the joint a decade ago, odds are pretty good that he would have wanted to dump PCs then. (I’ll bet that more than one Wall Street type responded to his announcement not with a “You’re kidding!” but with an “It’s about time!”)
So PCs aren’t dead, and HP’s move away from them may not be as significant as it looks at first blush. That doesn’t mean the status quo is going to remain the status quo. Something is obviously happening: nearly every week, I stumble upon a new small business that has woven the iPad into its everyday work, much as companies glommed onto PCs when they were new. But if you think that the PC is starting to give way to something that isn’t a PC, you’re not thinking big enough.(See why HP is getting out of the consumer game.)
Desktops and laptops running Microsoft software have dominated the PC market for so long that our brains have lazily conflated that particular platform with the overarching concept of the personal computer. But tablets and smart phones are deeply personal, and they’re undeniably computing devices. They’re exciting new types of PCs in my book — not entirely unrecognizable beasts, and not the mere PC companions that Microsoft’s Shaw described. I look forward to them coexisting with the more familiar sort of PCs for a long time to come.
Maybe “commingling” is a better word than “coexisting.” For one thing, Windows 8, which Microsoft plans to officially unveil this month at its BUILD conference, is the first version of Windows that will show the influence of the iPad.
To me, the most important part of HP’s decision isn’t that the company concluded that its PC business might be better off as a stand-alone enterprise. It’s that it gave up on the TouchPad in so little time that the whole effort left me feeling embarrassed for one of Silicon Valley’s most iconic institutions. (After finding a ready market for $499 TouchPads marked down to $99, HP is now saying that its tablet isn’t absolutely, positively dead, but let’s face it: it’s more zombie than viable product.) (See more about the HP TouchPad.)
HP’s TouchPad surrender reminds me of the sad story of the minicomputer companies that lined Boston’s Route 128 in the 1970s and ’80s, such as Data General, Digital, Prime and Wang. They all tried making PCs. They all failed, even after giving the idea far more of a chance than HP gave its tablet. And they all died.
I’m not predicting the collapse of HP’s PC business. But by pulling the rug out from under the TouchPad so quickly, the company has declared that it’s not even going to try to be a major player in shaping the future of personal computing. That’s sad for HP and sad for the PC. And in time, I believe the company will conclude that it made a doozy of a mistake.