Mossberg: The PC has become part of the furniture

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For a long, long time the PC was king. Whether it ran Windows, as most did, or was a premium-priced Mac, your desktop or laptop computer was your most cherished, most important digital device. For three decades, from roughly 1977 to 2007, people and companies gradually came to rely on PCs, by which I mean both major flavors of computers.

When a new desktop or laptop came out, it was a big deal. When a new style or big feature or operating system came out, it was a huge deal. Plenty of people still around today can remember that many stores opened at midnight to sell Windows 95 when it launched. Plenty recall that the 2002 desklamp-style iMac made the cover of Time, which was (then) a very special thing.

So potent was the PC — especially the Windows PC — two decades ago, that The New York Times commented: “Computer use has become so widespread, and Microsoft’s grip on the industry so powerful, that the introduction of Windows 95 took on the decibel level of a national event, almost a new August holiday that might be dubbed Bill Gates Day.”

Apple and Microsoft are still on it

This week, those same two companies that drove the PC revolution, Apple and Microsoft, are due to unveil new computers. Microsoft, a software colossus that has lately become a hardware novice, is rumored to be unveiling a new all-in-one model. Apple, maker of the most prestigious, profitable, and copied PCs (though never the overall sales leader) is widely expected to launch a radically overhauled model of its flagship laptop, the MacBook Pro.

Tech enthusiasts and tech journalists will care a lot. MacBook Pro users — who tend to be clustered in vocal, influential industries — will either love the new model, or hate it. People excited by Microsoft’s Surface line of tablets, laptops, and tablet / laptop hybrids, will likely be very happy.

But, to steal from the late, great B.B. King: for most people, the thrill is gone. And that’s because the PC has become the furniture of our digital lives. It’s absolutely necessary. You wouldn’t want to be without it. But you don’t get very excited about it, don’t brag about it, don’t replace it very often, and don’t expect revolutionary new features when you do.

I predict that all of the excitement among the general public that is generated by this week’s launches will be less than that of a major, significant, iPhone, Samsung, or now Google Pixel smartphone launch. It doesn’t even have to be significant. When Apple introduced the conservatively designed iPhone 7 last month it did so in a giant downtown conference hall with thousands of packed seats. For the MacBook Pro launch this week, it’s using a company auditorium with just hundreds of seats, even though the product redesign may well be more dramatic.

True, the iPhone is the main product Apple sells now, yet the Mac is no slouch. It’s been a $20 billion-plus business in recent years. But PCs just aren’t as exciting as smartphones. In fact, consumers and businesses now regard PCs as such a basic, background tool, with so little game-changing innovation, that they buy new ones far less often.

For years, I used to write a laptop buyer’s guide in the spring and the fall. It was popular. And then, I noticed reader interest dropping, and so I stopped. Very few people noticed.

Some numbers

Just two weeks ago, the respected research firm Gartner Inc. reported that PC sales had declined for the eighth straight quarter, the longest-lasting decline in the industry’s history.

Gartner blamed two things: “The extension of the lifetime of the PC caused by the excess of consumer devices, and weak PC consumer demand in emerging markets.” Principal analyst Mikako Kitagawa added: “According to our 2016 personal technology survey, the majority of consumers own, and use, at least three different types of devices in mature markets. Among these devices, the PC is not a high priority device for the majority of consumers, so they do not feel the need to upgrade their PCs as often as they used to. Some may never decide to upgrade to a PC again. (Emphasis mine.)

In emerging markets, it’s worse; many people never owned PCs in the first place, and their aspirational device is a smartphone.

Even Apple’s Mac line, which had defied the overall PC market drop, just posted a 14 percent year-over-year unit sales decline, possibly in part because people were waiting for the new MacBook Pro.

I report all of this with no glee. I own multiple PCs, will likely buy more, and am writing this column on a laptop. But I routinely carry an iPhone and iPad with me whenever remotely possible instead of even a light laptop. And my use of my laptops has dropped by about half since the iPad came out. My main production laptop is over three years old. And I’m a tech journalist and a gadget lover, not a mainstream consumer.

But, when it comes to smartphones and tablets, I’m much more up to date. I just ordered a Pixel, for instance.

There are some bright spots in the PC landscape. Inexpensive Google-based Chromebooks, which aren’t counted by Gartner, are up. So are Windows tablets. Companies like HP are still vying for premium customers with cutting-edge, attractive models.

Gartner’s competitor, IDC, which does count Chromebooks and iPads, also recorded another decline last quarter, but played up the fact that it was less than expected.

“Nevertheless,” IDC said, “total PC shipments are still declining and some of the short-term improvement may come out of next year rather than accelerating longer-term buying.”

This isn’t a simple story of smartphones replacing PCs, however. The modern smartphone is in its ninth year. Its sales, while still growing globally, seem to be flattening in mature markets. Yesterday, Apple posted its first year-over-year annual revenue decline since 2001 as iPhone sales fell, although the iPhone 7 may generate a rebound next quarter. Dramatic new features were scarce on the latest iPhone or the Google Pixel, and Samsung’s safety recall of its flagship phone has badly damaged its brand.

So, the smartphone market needs some juice as well. But new players are still rocking the market with impressive and different products, like Chinese maker Xiaomi’s Mi Mix ceramic phone with no bezels. And zillions of people will be excited to see 2017 models, like the tenth anniversary iPhone and the (presumably) non-flammable Samsung Galaxy Note 8 (or whatever it’s called).

Bottom line:

Most people reading this column will buy a new PC when theirs is old and unreliable. But almost nobody is lusting after them any more, or buying them annually or every two years. Certainly not enough to justify the famous years-long series of Apple ads pitting meek “PC guy” against cool “Mac guy.”

Yup. The thrill is gone.

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