PC Market: Tired, Commoditized — But Not Dead

As Hewlett-Packard prepares to spinoff or sell its PC business within the next 12 to 18 months, many have spoken about the “death of the PC.”

Talk of “Death” and “Killing”

Talk of metaphorical “death” and “killing” has been rampant in technology’s new media for the past couple years . When observers aren’t noting that a product or technology is “dead,” they’re saying that an emergent product of one sort or another will “kill” a current market leader. It’s all exaggeration and melodrama, of course, but it’s not helpful. It lowers the discourse, and it makes the technology industry appear akin to professional wrestling with nerds. Nobody wants to see that.

Truth be told, the PC is not dead. It’s enervated, it’s best days are behind it, but it’s still here. It has, however, become a commodity with paper-thin margins, and that’s why HP — more than six years after IBM set the precedent — is bailing on the PC market.

Commoditized markets are no place for thrill seekers or for CEOs of companies that desperately seek bigger profit margins. HP CEO Leo Apotheker, as a longtime software executive, must have viewed HP’s PC business, which still accounts for about 30 percent of the company’s revenues, with utter disdain when he first joined the company.

No Room for Margin

As  I wrote in this forum a while back, PC vendors these days have little room to add value (and hence margin) to the boxes they sell. It was bad enough when they were trying to make a living atop the microprocessors and operating systems of Intel and Microsoft, respectively. Now they also have to factor original design manufacturers (ODMs)  into the shrinking-margin equation.

It’s almost a dirty little secret, but the ODMs do a lot more than just manufacture PCs for the big brands, including HP and Dell. Many ODMs effectively have taken over hardware design and R&D from cost-cutting PC brands. Beyond a name on a bezel, and whatever brand equity that name carries, PC vendor aren’t adding much value to the box that ships.

For further background on how it came to this — and why HP’s exit from the PC market was inevitable — I direct you to my previous post on the subject, written more than a year ago. In that post, I quoted and referenced Stan Shih, Acer’s founder, who said that “U.S. computer brands may disappear over the next 20 years, just like what happened to U.S. television brands.”

Given the news this week, and mounting questions about Dell’s commitment to the low-margin PC business, Shih might want to give that forecast a sharp forward revision.

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