Is it too early to declare the death of the PC?
One might think that after No. 1 maker Hewlett-Packard said it would exit the business and No. 2 Dell reported only one percent growth, the PC era is over.
Maybe we could put on the tombstone, Here lies the PC, 1976 - 2011; Time's Machine of the Year 1982; Billions manufactured; Once a Hot Item, Now a Commodity.
There could be a list of mourners, which could include names like HP, IBM, Texas Instruments, NCR and Unisys, with discount brands like Gateway 2000 and Packard Bell, plus ghosts like Commodore, Digital Equipment, Atari and Coleco.
Think again. From the developed world perspective, PCs have become commodities, which explains why HP, which bought market share by paying nearly $20 billion for Compaq in 2002, wants to leave, concentrating on more profitable lines like enterprise servers, software, middleware and services.
Overall, PC growth is expected be around 9.3 percent this year, or about 385 million units, Gartner estimates.
Meanwhile, growth in smartphones will soar 62 percent to 478 million, IHS estimates. Tablet sales will leap 60 percent, to nearly 160 million, says IHS.
Is it any wonder why new HP CEO Leo Apotheker decided to opt out to concentrate on what HP does best: supporting large enterprises with technology products and services?
Apotheker, who studied business and economics at Hebrew University, had been a great success as CEO of SAP, Europe's biggest software company. High-margin business is in his blood.
That's another reason why he looked at Apple's success selling more than 25 million iPads and scrapped the bulky HP TouchPad, on sale less than two months. The company will also evaluate how to handle its Web OS that came with last year's takeover of Palm.
The tablet effect is real, Apotheker said. Letting HP focus on its crown jewels in advanced servers, software, profitable printers and new services like video search that will come with the $10.3 billion Autonomy acquisition, should lead to greater value over time. HP will reap profit selling to the network operators and the corporate market that support all the services consumers demand on their smartphones.
Outside the developed world, though, PCs are growing and they can make money. China's Lenovo Group and Taiwan's Asustek are thriving, winning market share and showering shareholders with profits. Lenovo, which bought IBM's remaining PC business in 2005, reported first-quarter net income nearly doubled as revenue jumped 15 percent.
There's enormous growth in the so-called BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) market, as well as emerging markets throughout Southeast Asia and Latin America where the first PC is still a business milestone.
Indeed, that's where the growth for both HP and Dell came from, not at home.
HP's founders, the legendary Bill Hewlett and David Packard, weren't excited about getting into PCs, anyway, because it frittered away the company's tradition of supplying instruments and computation devices, then advanced work stations for business.
They watched how IBM entered PCs in 1981 and achieved huge market share but not with great profit. John Young and Lew Platt, who succeeded them, thought selling PCs to companies that were already using the HP 3000 computers and instruments would be happy to have an IBM-compatible PC.
In the mid-1980s, HP, Digital Equipment, NCR and the like believed they could bundle packages for the enterprise market. Then office workers would buy their first home PCs.
That's how IBM achieved its first success 30 years ago, before stumbling with the awful IBM PCjr. Apple, then run by Steve Jobs the first time, dominated the education and creative markets, so the IBM-compatible players like Compaq, Dell and Gateway emerged and ended up beating IBM, which made huge losses and first left the consumer PC business, then sold its ThinkPad name and designs to Lenovo.
IBM has done rather well since, although in overall revenue, HP surpassed it to become global No. 1 in computers.
The Asian manufacturers already make most of the world's PCs as well as the smartphones and tablets. They use the industry standard chips from giants like Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, which are also in many Apple products. Apple's specialty chips are designed by Britain's ARM Holdings but made in Asian semiconductor foundries.
In 10 years, it's likely all of the insides of whatever appliance is used in the office or at home will actually be manufactured by a Samsung, Toshiba, Acer, Foxconn or Lenovo-type giant in Asia or elsewhere in the developing world.
The smartphone and tablet will be even cheaper --- especially because Intel and AMD are working on ever-thinner chips with more integrated functions --- and they will be ubiquitous. Today's smart players in the sector, like Apple, HTC, Foxconn, Research in Motion, Qualcomm, Samsung and Nokia, as well as Google, will have to continually evolve.
Enterprise players, the HPs, IBMs, Oracles and SAPs of 10 years from now, will have to support all this, because their servers, software and services will be supporting the network, now with complete wireless functionality, voice, video, search, GPS and retrieval.
Nearly 30 years ago, many of these same companies worked on what was called the Integrated Services Digital Network, which was supposed to merger all these services with telephony. That's when IBM, Siemens, and HP made their initial moves into telephony but didn't know how to handle it.
IBM, as early as 1975, was a minority shareholder in Satellite Business Systems, a global communications company that competed against AT&T. SBS later was sold to MCI, which later ended up within Verizon Communications.
In 1984, IBM also bought ROLM, a developer of PBX systems, in another ill-started push. That was sold to Siemens.
IBM, which at one time owned 18 percent of Intel, could probably have developed its own version of the iPhone and the iPad, had it been better managed when it was still in the consumer business.
Giant Japanese electronics makers Toshiba and NEC, for example, have long had huge expertise in computing and telecom products, but have no space yet in the smartphone and tablet sector, where Sony, at least is active. All three are major PC players, both in Asia as well as developed markets.
Dell, the HP PC business and the Asian companies will define whatever becomes of the PC, which will not go away but evolve into an intelligent appliance for information, work and fun.