Analyst Opinion - While many of my peers were watching the battle between consoles and PCs this week and were wondering, like me, if Sony has lost the console war, we’ll save a console discussion for the future. Today, we’ll focus on what’s new in the PC market.
A few days ago, Michael Dell launched his new small business line of products and made several broad statements with regard to going Green and getting rid of adware (often called Crapware). This all happened the week after the release of the iPhone, a product that kicked the butt of every phone in the market even though it was priced so far above what most are willing to pay no one but Apple could have likely sold it at all.
Also in regards to Apple, it is interesting to note that a year ago, not a single Windows PC maker was taking Apple seriously as a threat. Now it appears that Apple has become the gold standard. That scenario promises that Windows PCs are going to get a better out of box experience over the next few months. While there clearly has been a Xerox cloud that always hung over Apple, I think they can toss that aside now as they clearly are doing very good work.
Let’s look at the PC technology HP has, which could do for the PC market what Apple did for cell phones; then we will explore “Green” a little bit, because vendors are all over the map; and we’ll discuss Dell and its efforts to get Crapware off of PCs.
Touchsmart: Building the iPhone of PCs
With the iPhone, Apple took their version of UNIX wrapped it with a very clean user interface that appears vastly superior to operating systems that were specifically built for the phone, wrapped that with a very nice hardware design, a stunning out of box experience, and placed the entire platform under a demand generation program that should be used in marketing textbooks as an example of how to bring a new product to market.
HP, of all the PC vendors, has the most Apple DNA in their marketing groups. They have a product called the TouchSmart PC, which – in the Windows space - comes the closest to what Apple has done with the iPhone. If you haven’t seen the Touchsmart, in many ways it takes Windows Vista and turns the interface into something wonderful and very similar to what Apple recently did with the iPhone.
Unfortunately, HP didn’t put this interface on their Touchscreen notebook and it only exists on their iMac like all-in-one system. Now, you can’t always live entirely in this interface but it comes the closest to the kind of amazing experience the iPhone provides.
Microsoft’s weakness, historically, is the user interface. What they provide is too complex, often inconsistent, and, when compared to Apple (and particularly the iPhone), too difficult to use. Their Surface platform, the Media Center interface, and the Xbox are exceptions but I think it is time for those that license from Microsoft to do some work like HP, HTC, and Neonode have done, if they want to create the same kind of excitement that the iPhone got.
To make this work, it would not only need an Apple-like marketing program to create excitement, but it would need a core application stack that people could get excited about. This would suggest a next generation iLife-like product. I’ve heard that such a product is in the works but the name connected to the effort isn’t HP’s.
Leopard looks good but it doesn’t go as far as the iPhone did to really push the user experience where it needs to go and I know a number of iPhone users who now can see themselves living off of a future iPhone that did a better job with email and attachments (most of these folks didn’t believe a phone could ever replace a laptop before this).
I think there could be something amazing brewing here, but if you get a chance to try out a Touchsmart, I think you’ll agree it has the seeds of a product that could do for PCs what the iPhone did for phones.
Gateway gets color
This same week Gateway came out with their new T and M consumer designs and followed Dell with their own introduction of color choices. This idea of being able to pick the color of your PC was pioneered and then abandoned by Apple on PCs, though it continues to be offered as an option on some of their MP3 players. These new products are getting good initial reviews and further reinforce that the industry is moving to a vastly stronger design focus and Gateway is serious about leading in this effort.
I can recall, not so long ago, when Gateway laptops were silver monsters, well built but hardly comparable to the kind of thing you saw from Sony, Toshiba or Apple. Funny story, on Gateway, a few years ago I was carrying a 17” heavy laptop from them and as I hefted my backpack over my head at the airport, it blew out the zippers and went flying over my head into the parking lot. The first thing that cam to mid was that that thing was toast. It landed on the corner (probably the worst way it could land) and all that happened is that one of the port doors popped out and it got a little scratched up. But it ran just fine. It was built like a tank.
Gateway continues to get good customer satisfaction scores, which indicates they are probably still building solid products. What sets these apart is they are one of the first lines to have HDMI ports out so you can use them with High Definition TV sets to do things like show YouTube videos, downloaded movies and downloaded TV shows.
I’m noticing that many hotels now have plasma TVs and this would allow you to bring your downloaded content or DVD s with you and use your laptop to put them on the TV in your room when you are traveling. Gateway is also providing a choice of HD-DVD or Blu-ray drives, so you can turn these into one of the few portable high definition portable DVD players (given the pricing for both HD-DVD and Blu-ray, that’s almost like getting the laptop for free).
HP, Dell, and Gateway are chasing each other with design. Regardless of which company you choose, your choices are getting much more interesting as a result. It looks like the time for the plain grey laptop is gone.
Michael Dell wounds Crapware
If you are like me, you are sick and tired of all of the crap that comes on a new PC. This stuff gets in the way of having a great out of box experience and, according to Dell, results in a high percentage of the breakage folks are initially seeing with new PCs. One of the things that Apple really gets right is their near legendary out of box experience which doesn’t include messing with a large number of applications you don’t want or need.
Dell is promising that, in the future, at least with their small business products, you won’t have to deal with this stuff anymore and, my hope is, that more vendors will follow them. While this is a nice start I think this initiative should spread to all PC and include consumer boxes as well. At the very least, vendors should supply one button to hit and get the stuff off of the computer I just bought and ideally they should ask me before they put it on a system I purchase.
The reason why it is there is the vendors get paid to put this software on systems and margins on PCs are very thin. But, to me, screwing up the entire experience for a couple of bucks is stupid. I mean, car manufacturers could likely sell ad space on the side of the cars they sell but thankfully don’t. If PC companies want to make money by screwing up the user experience I’ll bet Michael Dell would pay HP $10 to $20 per machine for each HP laptop HP intentionally made painful to use. Taking money from anyone to reduce customer satisfaction is just stupid.
Dell also announced they were chasing a Green initiative focused on power conservation. Green is becoming very big in the tech industry and HP has also been incredibly aggressive here. Even Apple is getting better, but these firms often seem to be all over the map. Power conservation is most important to me (I use a lot of solar power and pay for power annually and that bill is painful), so I am pleased that Dell is also working to lower my power bill.
UI, design, user experience, and Green
If you look at these vendors collectively, you see HP driving to improve the Windows UI (which has needed help for some time); Gateway is the latest to focus on sharp designs as a differentiator, Dell is leading in creating a better out of box experience by eliminating adware, and all of the vendors (including Apple now) getting behind making the world a better place to live and competing on who can be the most green. Those are good trends which suggest the PCs you’ll be seeing from all of these guys are going to be getting vastly better over time.
We are approaching the back to school buying season and all of these guys are going to be chasing your dollars. So shop around, whether it is color, design, power savings, user experience, or unique new user interfaces you are interested in, your choices have never been richer.
Strangely enough, I think much of the beneficial change we will be seeing is the result of Apple being viewed as a major player to be emulated again and not as the bit player they have been for much of their life. This may cost Apple a lot (they have historically flown under the radar of these big companies), but without big risk, there’s no big gain and they’ve gained a lot (and the alternative of continuing to be irrelevant, fortunately, doesn’t seem to be on their plate).
But, whether you ever use an Apple product or not, those that have worked there can be proud that they have done at least as much as anyone else to change the computing world. Kind of amazing when you think about it.
Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts. Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them. Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.