Brian Hall
Jun 2, 2012

The Rise of the PC. And the fall of the hardware spec.

The new Google Chromebox: a new software-based picutre of the home PC?What is a PC? Wikipedia defines a PC thusly:

A personal computer (PC) is any general-purpose computer whose size, capabilities, and original sales price make it useful for individuals, and which is intended to be operated directly by an end-user with no intervening computer operator.

Many still view the PC as a ‘box’ that sits atop a desk -- that includes a keyboard, monitor, mouse -- and  whose utility is primarily defined by its specs, or hardware: processor speed, memory, storage. This is no longer true. Increasingly, today’s “personal computers” are smartphones, tablets, specialized Google Chromebooks and other devices, all highly mobile, user friendly, often touchscreen-based and defined less by the power of hardware and more by the power of their ecosystem. Many pundits call these ‘post-PC’ devices.

The iconic iPhone is now the most prevalent "personal computer."
The current leaders of this new phase of the personal computing revolution are Apple and Google. Apple makes the iPhone, the world’s most popular and profitable smartphone, and the iPad, the dominant tablet computing device. Google develops and oversees Android, the operating system that already powers about 300 million smartphones. Google also develops and manages the Chrome operating system which powers Chromebooks, netbook-like personal computing devices.
Likewise, Apple has sold approximately 300 million of its post-PC devices, the iPhone, iPad and to a lesser extent, their iPod Touch. All powered by their iOS operating system. Apple is on pace to sell approximately 240 million iOS devices this year. This number is telling. Microsoft, long the dominant player in the “PC” market sold 240 million licenses of its Windows 7 operating system the first year of release (and a total of about 500 million over the past two years). We are witnessing a sea change not only in personal computing but in the market leaders.

Microsoft, for example, claims a global install base of 1.25 billion Windows “PCs”. The market for smartphones and tablets, however, based on Apple and Google’s operating systems, should surpass this number, easily, by 2015. Indeed, Apple CEO Tim Cook suggests that annual smartphone sales alone will surpass 1 billion units within 3 years. This is not merely a change in market leadership, but a rather stunning change in the user’s perception of what are the most important, defining features of the new personal computer. Hardware has now become, at best, a secondary consideration.
The new era of personal computing, of tablets, smartphones, netbooks, Chromebooks and the like are powered not by the latest chip, for example, but by the strength of the respective ecosystems and other features. These include:

  • Size, including thinness and lightness (weight)
  • Size and quality of the screen
  • Battery power and longevity
  • Touchscreen responsiveness
  • The number and quality and availability of apps – lightweight, highly focused and typically very low-cost software programs that run only on the respective platform
  • Availability, reliability and speed of Internet connection

Gone, almost entirely, are discussions of the device itself – and the hardware powering the device. Consider that last month offered its advice for “choosing the right smartphone for your business”:

  1. Determine which carriers offer the best service in your area.
  2. Weigh the costs of signing a service contract.
  3. Figure out which phone is best for your needs.

Hardware specs, device-centric functions are almost viewed as inconsequential. For example, in determining “which phone is best for your needs”, the site is rather specific:

  • “Choose a phone that feels good in your hand, isn't a chore to learn or use, and will keep pace with apps, networks and the mobile web as they evolve.”
  • “Decide which mobile operating system you want.” iPhone, Android, Windows Phone or Blackberry.
  • Make sure to get the latest version of the respective operating system.

Not until the very last line of the nearly 1,000 word article are traditional old PC world specs even considered:

“Finally, buy the most processing power and memory you can afford. Most smartphones come with a small SD memory card, so you might want to buy the largest possible card separately and simply install it.”

Where only very recently a major factor in purchasing a PC was not only “Intel Inside” but the speed of the Intel processor, rarely do today’s ‘personal computer’ users know who made the processor that powers their tablet, smartphone or Chromebook. Nor do they seem to care.  Few are aware, for example, if the device has an “800MHz single core processor” like the newest Nokia Lumia 900 smartphone, powered by Windows Phone OS,  rather than a presumptively more powerful 1.2-GHz dual-core processor that can be found in the latest Google Android Nexus device, made by Samsung. 

Apps, feel, usability, operating system; these are driving sales, not hardware. Are we witnessing the death of the spec? Is hardware now to be fundamentally reduced in value and appeal?  It appears so. Innovation in OS, design, and the appeal of apps, not electronics per se, are driving sales.  In this new era of computing, dominated by tablets and smartphones, the hardware “inside” matters less to the end user than ever before.

Is this a function of multiple competing operating systems? In the previous PC era, the OS was nearly always Windows. Vendors naturally built their machines with Windows, then competed on specs, along with brand name, price and other factors. Specs – hardware – was relevant and prominently featured. Should Android, for example, come to rule the smartphone market as Windows once did the traditional PC market, might vendors than market their devices based on specs? Are we in an innovation trough on the hardware side? Time will tell, though for now this next revolution is powered by the fuzzy notion of ecosystems, apps and usability and not the raw power of hardware.