For almost 20 years, home (and business) computing has pretty much amounted to one choice: X86 (probably Intel)- based hardware, running a version of Windows. It’s only in the past 1 to 2 years that we have started to see some real alternatives:
- Apple’s continued growth of its Mac business. It’s still very much a ‘niche’ player compared with the Windows PC market as a whole, but oh what a niche! Apple controls the entire ecosystem with high margins, world-leading designs, and revenues from all elements of the ecosystem (hardware, software, accessories, and content). Plus, that Windows market is split between 5 to 10 global players, dozens of regional ones, and hundreds of local assemblers — looking at them individually, Apple is no longer so ‘niche’. It’s No. 3 in terms of Q4 2011 US PC sales and probably between 6th and 8th place globally for the quarter (according to combinations of Gartner and Canalys data — not something I’d recommend doing other than to illustrate a point!).
- The rise and rise of tablets. Again, Apple’s role here cannot be overstated; the original tablet PCs and, looking even further back, PDAs had managed to carve out small niche markets but were always too underpowered or overpriced to cross the chasm to reach a mass market. The iPad changed all this; a beautifully designed content consumption device (again tied into the Apple ecosystem), it demonstrated that the flexibility and power of a PC (whether Mac- or Windows-powered) was overkill for a lot of tasks and people. Naturally, Apple’s success has bred competition, but aside from a couple of devices — perhaps even only the Kindle Fire — these haven’t really hit a home run yet.
- Google dabbling with Chromebooks while getting serious about operating systems. Chromebooks are still in the starting blocks, but they may ultimately demonstrate the merits of simpler devices. Chromebooks basically do away with pretty much all local software in favour of cloud services accessed via a browser. If Chromebooks are an aspiration for Google, Android on smartphones and Android-powered tablets are concrete success stories for the search giant. Amazon’s Kindle Fire will probably guarantee Google’s OS overtakes iOS as the most popular tablet OS, as it has done with smartphones. There isn’t much money in this for Google — arguably, the reason it has got so far so fast is by giving away its OS — but it does provide many more devices tied into Google’s ecosystem (Gmail, apps, search) and therefore more advertising opportunities.
- Microsoft embracing ARM-based hardware. This is perhaps the most interesting area for speculation at the moment (and I’m sure I’ll add my voice to this at some point). The success of the iPad has led Microsoft to look at the ARM architecture more seriously; what was previously too underpowered is now seen as a way of slimming down form factors and delivering superior battery life. That the ARM architecture has developed incredibly fast over the past 2 years thanks to the smartphone market and other tablets hasn’t hurt either. Will Windows ARM tablets be full PC replacements? It’s too early to tell, but probably not; Microsoft won’t want to kill the revenue streams of its other software offerings like Office, and these products are unlikely to command the same price from consumers when offered via a Metro-UI-based app store.
All of the above means that the next 1 to 2 years will be an unprecedented period of change and competition in the PC space — and consumers will be at the forefront of this change; business users are typically slightly more conservative in embracing new platforms. Hardware and business models are only really half the story; we also need to consider what matters to consumers when buying a new ‘computer’ (whatever that may come to mean) and what usage scenarios really play into this. I’ll be looking at both of these in my next posts.