New Venues for ‘Desktop’ Computers

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 – 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.

Computer Upgrades
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 – 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.

Windows Home Server
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.

Alleged ASUS Eee Desktop PC
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.

Wrap Up

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. 🙂

3 thoughts on “New Venues for ‘Desktop’ Computers”

  1. My line of thought is somewhat different than yours. I’d almost like to see a massive central server (similar to WHS), and have terminals in the kitchen and other areas. If all is going to be done is send e-mails and check websites, I don’t see why having independent machines that would require independent servicing would be a better idea.

    It’s sad to see how far the desktop has declined though. When I built my box not more than 8 months ago, it fit my needs like no laptop could. It was powerful, quiet, and had loads of storage. It might be heavy, but moving it three times a year isn’t a big deal. Now it’s no longer the desktop that’s holding me back because my laptop has filled that niche nicely, it’s the screen size that’s holding me back.

  2. I specifically avoided mentioning a thin client here and my concerns are three-fold:

    1. Wi-fi networks are great, but they’re still not terribly reliable. When I look up user reviews of wireless routers, I’ve come to the sad conclusion that about half of them will be rants about how their connection drops every few minutes, etc. While I typically don’t run into that many issues, they definitely do have their share of problems, and running applications across that sort of link just doesn’t add up to a good user experience. Of course, further development of thin client architecture (perhaps taking ideas from the concept of offline web-apps) will make it more robust, but as it stands – I’m wary of the thought. A business may have gigabit ethernet ports on just about every desk, connected to an enterprise-class switch, so that’s an entirely different story.
    2. One of the key points for thin clients in business settings is IT manageability. Instead of having to roll out hundreds of images to full-scale computers, they can install it once, and manage it from a central location. But it still requires management. In a home setting, that massive central server will still require administration. Sure the number of computers requiring active servicing would be reduced, possibly two or three-fold, but doesn’t remove the problem altogether, which leads me to the next point.
    3. Networking is a scary thing for most people. Connecting up to a wireless network is a fairly routine thing now, but once you get into security, permissions, and related topics, 3/4s of users’ eyes glaze over. If it’s difficult to access a file on another computer, imagine the chaos of attempting to set up network application permissions. *shudder*

    I absolutely believe thin clients have a space in the enterprise, where computing electrical costs and IT management play a much more substantial role in operating expenses than in a home. But until they do develop quite a bit more, I don’t believe they are ready for deployment in the typical household setting.

    And let me say, I absolutely know what you’re saying about desktops on the decline. At one point for me, it was all about power and performance. Now, I’m thinking more about style, space, and usability, which is a large part of the reason for switching out this Antec P180 and a full-size ATX board for a Silverstone SG03 and a mATX board. The parts should be arriving this week, so I’m planning on getting the new box up and running this weekend.

  3. I think this is absolutely true. Laptops are taking over desktops. And as you eluded to, “mini” desktops are going to slowly replace normal desktops. Most people have no idea what’s in their computer. They don’t know why it’s slow/fast. All they know is how much it costs and what it looks like.

    I’d say a lot of this is a response to the fact that, asides from enthusiast type activities (gaming, editing, etc), the speed of computers has increased faster than the demand of most software. Most web browsers run pretty much the same, regardless of PC. So who needs a big beast when a sleek little box runs their apps just as well?

    The only thing really pushing new hardware is the demands of new operating systems (*cough* Vista *cough*).

    I’m a gamer, so I’ll be owning many more desktops, but I’ve got plenty of friends that only use laptops now.

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