There’s a lot of talk of desktops dying out and laptops taking over. The trend is in place, with crossover between notebook and desktop sales either having already taken place, or will take place sometime this year, depending on who you talk to. I can easily see why this is the case â€“ a laptop can be useful in many more situations, and with computing power at where it is, laptops are hardly the overweight, underpowered machines they were 10 years ago. Many of the existing desktops, or even the desktops you can buy for $400 today are more than adequate for the vast majority of users, who browse the internet, write emails and edit word documents.
So is a laptop with a dock the answer for the future? I don’t think so, but I also don’t think the existing desktop market is viable. Dell’s recent announcement of the closure of its Austin, Texas desktop manufacturing plant is just another sign that desktops are no longer the dominant computing product they once were (and of course, that the operating expenses just can’t compete with outsourced operations in Asia). I believe there is still potential growth in the desktop computer market, just not in its current state; vendors are simply not approaching it in a way that attracts consumers. Very few people need to upgrade from a Core Duo to a Core 2 Quad. The incremental benefit isn’t justifiable.
How many people are making the jump?
I’ve mentioned this a few times in the past: computers are quickly becoming a status symbol and decoration in the home. Beige-boxes and boring designs were acceptable in the past, but with desktop internals being the commodities they are now, differentiation has to occur, literally, outside the box. If anything, Apple has shown everyone the power of branding and aesthetics. Performance doesn’t sell the vast majority of computers anymore â€“ it’s price, ease-of-use, style, etc. Have you walked down the desktop aisle of your local big-box technology retailer? Despite some gloss here and a rounded corner there, the vast majority of desktops are still just big boxes users try to hide under a desk.
ASUS’ success in the Eee PC shows that consumers are willing to overlook performance as a trade-off for the ‘cute-factor’ and portability, especially in a machine that is designed to do trivial tasks. And let’s be honest here, most of the tasks performed by the vast majority of the computer-using population are trivial. Why not move desktops in the same direction?
Throw out the word ‘Desktop’
Let’s throw the word ‘desktop’ out the window. That’s the first step to expanding the market. ‘Desktop’ implies, well, deskbound. We want a computer that we’re not ashamed of putting out in a public place. Is the computer something you place in your living room as a piece of art? Let’s put a low-power, small form factor machine in the study. Let’s also put one in the home theatre, and let’s put one in the kitchen. These machines would be cheap, very cheap. If a full-sized, dual core PC with a big hard drive can be purchased for far less than $400 (at Dell Canada, $309 buys you a dual core Pentium E2160-based desktop), something with a dual-core Atom (or similar) in a small form factor design should be priced even lower.
To ride the multimedia (especially the high-def craze), use the concept of the Windows Home Server. Tuck a box of hard drives in a closet somewhere and stream all the content you want to the small client boxes around the home. It keeps the media content centralized and at the same time, keeps the size of the computing devices small, possibly equipped with nothing more than a 2.5″ hard drive for the operating system and applications.
Microsoft’s onto something here; just replace all the connected devices with thinner clients.
Of course, there will still be a market for powerful, full-sized desktops. Computer enthusiasts, gamers, and content-creationists will require more computing performance than the average user – but that’s exactly the point – the average user doesn’t need that sort of power.
Potential solutions on the horizon
I’m interested to see what ASUS ends up doing for its already-announced Eee desktop PC. HotHardware recently published a supposed image of the device and it looks very sleek, certainly very different from most traditional ‘desktops’. If it’s priced appropriately, I think it will be very successful. People will buy it to replace their existing machines, not because it’s more powerful (in fact, it’ll probably be less powerful, if anything) but because it’s something they can place in the living room and use as a conversation piece the next time the neighbors visit.
Could this be the ASUS Eee desktop PC?
The Apple Mac Mini and Apple TV are similar to what I’m proposing here, but each has a fatal flaw. The Mac Mini is far too expensive (relative) and the Apple TV is too functionally limited (I’m not counting the hacks that 99% of the population wouldn’t even consider), not to mention the fact that, despite rapid growth, OS X is still a niche and unfamiliar platform for most.
Give me some nicely styled, $250 (or less) computers around the size of the Wii, and I’ll show you a heck of a lot of interested customers.
No, this is no April Fool’s joke. 🙂