I keep seeing reports that we’ve reached some kind of watershed in the growth of personal computers. Specifically, the argument that mobile devices are now handling more and more of our daily tasks means that we have less need to pick up a new PC, whether of the Windows or Mac variety. That alone is pointed to as the reason for the industry’s slowdown.
We’ll see how much of a slowdown we’re dealing with as we get through the Christmas season, but last year we saw the biggest sales drop in the PC industry in history. That was something of a surprise to me because we had just seen the introduction of Windows 10, and the old way of thinking was that a new Windows would spur people to buy new hardware to run it. Given the ubiquity of powerful, large smartphones, is the PC an endangered species?
I’d have to say the answer is no, and not just because we saw a small bump upward in PC sales in the second quarter (at least in the U.S.). For one thing, I suspect we’ll see more encouraging sales figures for the industry as new Apple and Microsoft offerings come into the mix, and Windows 10 continues to be adopted in both the home and commercial sector.
But something did produce a slowdown in PC sales, and I think the answer lies in the power of the machines we’re already using. For one thing, Windows 10 did not break existing users’ equipment, making it possible for Windows users to keep older machines in service.
We’re keeping our computers longer than we used to in the frenetic days when new machines made significantly better software available to us. I’m a case in point. I work with multiple computers, but my primary workhorse is now into its seventh year. I’ve made a few tweaks, replacing a balky video card at the urging of an exasperated son, and having no choice about replacing a failed hard disk, which was fortunately fully backed up when it died.
Every now and then I think about a new machine, but the key question for any user is to ask how many things your present setup doesn’t allow you to do. I don’t stress machines much, using them mostly for writing and Web research. I certainly am not involved in video editing or audio production, and I’m rarely stressing memory even with plenty of tabs open in Firefox.
What PC makers have to contend with, then, is that a new machine is simply a harder sell for many of us who ask what we’ll get for exchanging machines. No wonder Microsoft has turned to a pricey Surface Studio that brings new creative capabilities to its hardware in ways that mimic what Macs alone used to offer.
As for Apple, its latest MacBooks are $1,499 for the base model, but the 15-inch model is $2,400 and can easily shoot way past that. Spending extra gets you more power and the new Touch Bar, which provides keyboard extensions that change depending on the task at hand.
But is the Touch Bar, or the creative power of the Surface, a sufficient incentive to buy? These are expensive machines (the Surface starts at $3,000 and quickly moves past $4,000 if you start tweaking the available options). See what’s happening? The PC upgrade is no longer a given, and manufacturers have to be looking for ways to stretch out the bottom line.
We’ll still be able to buy inexpensive PCs, but the big players have to emphasize where their profits will come from as many of us stick with older machines. They need to tempt us with breakthroughs, and better profit margins for themselves. It remains to be seen how many of the designs now in play (a MacBook with no escape key?) are going to have traction.
This is an industry in forced transition as it begins to take personal computing into terra incognita. I expect innovation, but things could get murky until the Next Big Idea emerges.
Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at email@example.com.