Why the PC and X86 vendors are missing the big desktop PC opportunity

Posted by Rob Enderle

One of the biggest textbook mistakes IBM ever made was agreeing with Sun that the mainframe was dead - allegedly to be replaced by PCs and client server computing.

Fast forward 30 years later and mainframes are their most successful/profitable product and the market is talking about cloud computing (effectively virtual mainframes) while using browsers (very much like terminals) as clients. Had IBM pushed back and updated their solutions getting ahead of this cloud/browser curve they would more likely be as dominant now as they were then.  

A few years later Novell, after seeing OS/2 server and then Windows NT, announced the death of their network operating system Netware and the birth of Super NOS. Well, as you may have noticed, they aren’t exactly around anymore.

Similarly, the x86 and PC vendors today seem to be going along with the idea that desktop PCs are dead, meaning, the future is tablets and smartphones. The recurring lesson that all of these vendors seem to have missed is the person that fights on the other guy’s battle field will generally lose. So let’s revisit the advantages of a desktop computer.

More Power/More Display Real Estate

Mobile computers, particularly tablets and smartphones, can’t approach the performance or screen real estate of a desktop computer. I either use one 30” screen, three 24” screens, or two 27” screens and the difference in productivity is significant when moving from even a 15” laptop let alone a 7” or 10” tablet or even a 5” smartphone.  

Whether it is intense game play, video or photo editing, or even writing a document, the ability to have reference materials up on one screen and the work product on the other on top of the ability to run multiple applications at full performance at once easily trumps any mobile device.   

While cloud services can approach the performance with more and more HD quality programing over the web the ability to assure a HD video stream, particularly a low latency stream, over a wired, or particularly wireless, shared link in an airport, office, hotel room and especially on a plane (where it mostly doesn’t work) just isn’t there yet. While I’m not taking my desktop to a hotel, airport or on a plane anytime soon, I want the full experience, at least at home, and that goes to hell once most my neighbors are streaming Netflix.   

Better Together

If you are living off a tablet or smartphone, a desktop system should create a "better together" option than a laptop simply because, assuming you set up the remote software, you can then access some or all of that desktop performance while you are away from home and the desktop can become you safer (than the mobile device) repository for files.  

Granted, if you use something like Microsoft’s SkyDrive (I do) you’ll likely take advantage of the cloud resource, and the files will be synced down to your desktop when you want to move to the bigger screen and get some detailed work done. This is mostly because you desktop will stay connected and, if it is current generation, will regularly wake up and sync with the web service.  

Granted there isn’t a single vendor yet that is providing as good an experience as Amazon does with its Kindle products. Let me give you an example. I personally own  two Kindles and several other products, including my Nokia 920 which is loaded with Kindle reader software. I simply have to pick one device up, locate the book I’m reading, and when I download the book it resumes on the exact same page I was reading on another device. Now one step better would be if the service had already downloaded the book automatically but it comes close and at least showcases the book in my library often as something I’ve recently purchased (the Kindles work better than the Kindle software does at the moment).  

True, Windows 8 does a good job syncing my desktop and SkyDrive makes an effort  syncing my files. However, they are still a work in progress that needs to be handled differently and what I’d like is that, just like the Kindle, when I move between Windows devices (that are connected) my data moves with me and I can almost instantly pick up where I left off. Yes, I can do that with remote services like OnLive’s desktop but with bandwidth often limited my preference is still to have the files running local on the system in case I can’t get a low latency high bandwidth connection.  

A simple charging doc on top of my desktop or next to my all-in-one that forced a sync with my tablet or phone when it was placed charging in the doc would always assure my latest work in progress was always with me so I wouldn’t have to save a draft to the SkyDrive (which I often forget to do when I’m in a rush).  

Wrapping Up:  Cloud

The consensus opinion is that eventually everything will be centralized and placed in the cloud. This has remained in place even though the idea of centralizing electricity (one of the first things to be centralized) is being challenged by solar power due to energy cost and, in many areas, unreliability. We’ve had cloud service providers fail and Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have all experienced painful outages. Plus, there are still quite a lot of places where high bandwidth isn’t available. And what bandwidth we have is being used up by a rush to streamed HD, and eventually Ultra HD video.  

Maybe the better path, at least in the near-term, is for someone to create a better "together strategy" for our devices and desktop computers. That way, we could at least get a better experience at home and focus on providing everyone the large and multi-screen experience that only a desktop can offer. 

In the end, I personally think it was premature to call the death of the desktop and believe the laptop is more at near term risk from tablets. But, unless someone puts up a fight, we’ll likely make this swing, regret it, and swing back much like we did with mainframes. In the end, the PC vendors seem to be ignoring the two big combat rules: Wars are fought with the weapons you have, and the guy who fights on the other guy’s terms generally loses.