Intel: PC moves into a new computing spectrum

Intel researcher says PC industry not in decline, but some analysts disagree

The PC isn't in as great a decline as many have predicted. It's just becoming part of a new spectrum of computing, according to an Intel executive.

PC sales have been sluggish over the past year, due to the slow economy and the boom in the smartphone and tablets. However, it's not a matter of the PC slipping into obscurity, said Genevieve Bell, a researcher and Intel Fellow.

"We used to think it was one device to rule them all," Bell told Computerworld. "We thought that would be so cool, but it was never reality ... Consumers have so many more devices than they've ever had. Whether it's the smartphone that never leaves your hand, the e-readers that go on vacation with us. People are still doing computing whether it's desktops, which we never talk about any more, or laptops or tablets. There is such a plethora of devices, and I think that's really cool."

More than ever, computing is part of our everyday lives, Bell said, but less so is the computer.

The PC will never again be the only way we receive information, get work done, play or socialize. It will, however, be part of it.

"There was a time when the PC had to do everything," said Bell. "Now there are lots of other things that get to be important. For most people, they are using all of them... It's about this spectrum of things."

She explained that people want to do too many things with their computers for one device to be the answer.

People, she noted, are in love with their smartphones, which have become a personal part of their lives. They use their smartphones to take pictures, manage their time, send texts, and make calls. Tablets are used to read on cross-country flights and to watch movies in bed. Laptops and desktops are used to get work done, as well as to sorth through the thousands of pictures users take with their phones.

"The post-PC era. The paperless office. The cashless society. They're all inflection points, but they never spell the end of anything," said Bell. "The PC is no more dead than paper is dead. We've been calling for the paperless office for 30 years now and I still go to offices and there are Post-it notes everywhere. It's like talking about a cashless society. Empty your pockets and wallets and we all have cash and coins."

Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research, agrees with Bell that PCs are part of a broad range of computing options. That, however, doesn't mean the PC industry isn't still in decline.

"Sure. PCs are part of the spectrum of computing, but it's a less important part of the spectrum today," he said. "I'm not saying PCs are going away, but fewer people are reliant on them as their primary computing device. I think for a good chunk of the population, the PC is at the very end of the spectrum."

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, said the issue with PCs is that they have an image problem.

"The PC has more of a perception problem than anything else," Moorhead said. "Smartphones and tablets have added PC-like functionality at a blistering pace, which makes PCs look like they aren't innovating as fast. Just because PCs aren't innovating as fast doesn't mean they aren't innovating."

In an interview this week, Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner said the PC industry is innovating in ways that will boost the entire market. Technologies such as Windows 8-based touch screens for laptops and ultrabooks, always-on connectivity and longer battery life are coming and should help revive consumer and enterprise interest in spending money on PCs again.

Those features may help, but the PC market is still unlikely to get back to the levels it used to enjoy.

"Creating short emails in a cab line is done better on a smartphone, but creating a longer email in the office is done better on a PC," Moorhead said. "It all comes down to the context of what the user is doing, where they are doing it, and how quickly they want to do it... Now that smartphones and tablets are at the computing table, the PC market won't grow as fast if those devices didn't exist."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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