Plumbing depths to survive the post-PC era

Jack Schofield


Intel and Microsoft are trying hard to generate as much momentum as they can in the consumer electronics...

Jack Schofield


Intel and Microsoft are trying hard to generate as much momentum as they can in the consumer electronics market and both fielded top brass - Bill Gates from Microsoft and Intel's Craig Barrett - at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week.

Microsoft showed off its UltimateTV set-top box software, Xbox games console and smart phones. Intel's line-up included the Pocket Concert MP3 music player. Don't be deceived: their wealth and power in the PC business gets them a hearing, but both firms are minnows in the consumer electronics market.

However, both are willing to invest heavily to achieve success, for two reasons. First, consumer electronics provides some big markets where Intel and Microsoft could make a lot of money. Second, both companies want to be seen as building block suppliers (Gates' word is "plumbers") for the whole industry, from smart phones to mainframes, not just PCs. This will be important in the "PC plus" era where sales of about 150 million PCs a year are supplemented by smaller sales of numerous gizmos.

If the worst happens and we enter a "post PC" era, instead of a "PC plus" era, diversification will be a matter of survival. Microsoft may have a monopoly market share of the Intel-based PC market, but it has almost no market share in almost all the other operating system markets.

And, of course, the same concerns are affecting the whole IT industry. Market movements that are broad enough to hurt the building-block suppliers could be even more devastating for companies that use those building blocks: Compaq, Dell, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard et al.

It is no surprise to see these suppliers also broadening their ranges.

Deciding what to do and doing it successfully are, alas, different, as Apple has found. Struggling to survive in a booming PC market, Apple has already had a go at handhelds, appliances, set-top boxes and online services without success. And, until very recently with Compaq's iPaq PocketPC taking off, Microsoft had not done much better.

Jack Schofield is computer editor of The Guardian

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