Compaq's recent troubles may have led to the supposition that there's serious trouble in the PC market. Warnings of a slowdown in sales of desktop PCs and the resulting profit disappointments were part of the reason why the computer maker sacked CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer. Add to that IBM's admission that it lost a billion dollars on its desktop PC business last year, and the conclusion seems obvious. Two of the world's largest PC manufacturers experiencing sales difficulties? It must be the beginning of the end for the PC.
Not so. Figures published by market researcher IDC last week showed that unit sales of PCs in the first quarter of this year were up a healthy 19% worldwide on the same period last year. Even Compaq sold 10% more PCs, year on year.
Companies are still buying more PCs, despite Year 2000 lockdowns on IT spending, and so are consumers, in increasing numbers. But if there is a lesson to be drawn from recent debate about the future of the PC market, it is that PCs are no longer the whole game.
In the future, PCs will no longer be the most common way of accessing the Internet. That seems obvious. New generations of Internet access devices, from smart phones to hairdryers, will take over from the PC.
That doesn't mean the death of PCs. Offices will still use PCs for Internet access, and for other less serious tasks like running their businesses.
But as other Internet access devices become ubiquitous, and PCs are just part of that mix, PCs themselves become less special.
Software companies are already preparing for this. Take Microsoft. As Bill Gates told the audience at Comdex in the US last month, "many new devices will be invented and all will complement the PC". The truth is, Microsoft doesn't care what you're using, as long as it runs on Windows.
Hence the huge amount of development being poured into Windows CE and Embedded NT, and the company's investments in makers of WebTV devices.
Hardware manufacturers are also having to change. Customers are increasingly demanding that PC manufacturers add value beyond merely supplying the box. Service and support have always been key considerations for the largest companies, and that has been filtering down ever faster to the smallest firms, and individual users. For PC makers, this is where they see the increases in their revenue in a market crowded by alternative devices.
Both these trends are good news for users. As PC makers add greater value to differentiate their products, users benefit from better service. As the range of Net access devices broadens, there is greater choice.
Only one piece is missing - when telecoms firms bring down the cost of Internet access, users' happiness will be complete.
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