Personal computers, and the companies that make them, are not feeling the love lately. Consumers have swooned over tablets and now use their smartphones for most of the things for which they once used a desktop computer.
The evidence is in black and white in Gartner, Inc.'s report on third quarter PC shipments. Worldwide 80.3 million units shipped, down 8.6% from the same period in 2012. The third quarter is especially important to computer makers, much like the fourth quarter is to retailers.
"The third quarter is often referred to as the 'back-to-school' quarter for PC sales, and sales this quarter dropped to their lowest volume since 2008," said Mikako Kitagawa, principal analyst at Gartner. "Consumers' shift from PCs to tablets for daily content consumption continued to decrease the installed base of PCs both in mature as well as in emerging markets. A greater availability of inexpensive Android tablets attracted first-time consumers in emerging markets, and as supplementary devices in mature markets."
Lenovo and HP lead
Consumers who did purchase PCs favored both Lenovo and HP, which both had more than 15% of the third quarter market. Dell, the one-time leading PC manufacturer, was in third place with 11.6% of the market and Acer Group and Asus rounded out the top five.
Has the PC gone the way of the VCR and the printed telephone book? It may be on that track unless some innovator comes up with a way to make it new and exciting. How can they do that? For starters, how about making it smaller?
There are already a number of small PCs a fraction of the size of the traditional tower CPUs you normally think of. The Lenovo IdeaCentre Q190 Desktop PC – model number 57313339 – measures about six by seven and a half inches and is less than an inch thick. It's not an especially powerful workhorse, as the $395 price tag would suggest, but it sports an Intel Celeron 887 1.50GHz processor, 4GB DDR3, 500GB HDD, DVD-rewritable drive, Windows 8 64-bit, and comes with a keyboard.
While the CPU is small, there isn't much you can do to shrink a functional keyboard, unfortunately. Then there's the matter of a monitor. While flat screens have replaced the clunky tube-based monitors of yesteryear, size is usually seen as an advantage with a monitor.
But if you are trying to take up less space on your desk Double Sight makes a nine-inch display, weighing only a pound and a half and selling for $130.
Earlier this year Xi3 Corporation introduced a tiny desktop, the Z3RO Pro – a desktop computer small and light enough to fit in your pocket. Initial reviews were mostly positive though reviewers mostly saw its utility in entertainment systems or to power digital signage – applications where its compact size would make it attractive.
Because as small as the Z3RO Pro is, to make it useful for a consumer it still requires a screen and keyboard – two items that likely will never be small enough to fit in your pocket.
That, of course, is why there are notebook computers – portable PCs that have consistently gotten smaller and lighter over the years. A few years ago the “netbook” was introduced as an alternative to the notebook – smaller and lighter. The new Chromebooks are an update and refinement of that.
They, and PCs in general, are and probably always will be needed by people who want a machine to help them work, not play games, watch movies and post to Facebook. Mobile devices are fine for that, but if you have to knock out a term paper or cover a story for the Daily Eagle, chances are you'll find a tablet not up to the job. Unless you're really good at one-finger typing, you'll need a PC.
There may be a developer somewhere trying to reinvent the PC, to breathe new life into the machine that started the technology revolution. Those of us who depend on these machines for our livelihood can only hope it will still have a keyboard.