Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Self-Devourer

The image of the snake eating its own tail arose this morning as I read a story in The Wall Street Journal telling me that world-wide PC sales are slumping, down 8.3 percent from 3Q 2011 to 3Q 2012. This comes despite the fact that Microsoft is just about to launch Windows 8, an operating system that attempts to fawn on the modern customer who is supposed to love “touch technology,” thus the ability to paw the screen instead of using a mouse. WSJ recites among the reasons for what it calls a “tailspin” competition from tablets and also bad economic times, including sluggish demand in emerging economies. Both reasons are logical, but the bottom line is that the personal computer is now a mature industry; its real market is not personal but business use; and its likely future will have less to do with the growth of dollar output and more with growth in employment. The real motive for buying a computer is hiring a new employee. The image, however, of the leading edge of the computer industry, viewed generically, thus tablets and smart phones included, “cannibalizing,” as the Journal puts it, the PC market, does suggest that mythic Uroboros.

In the sense that industries mature, great success always morphs into failure. Success is measured by ever advancing annual growth rates, and in that sense the PC market has been suffering for quite a while. The very effort to keep growth growing by introducing ever more popular devices with the same functionalities, causes dismay to the older parts of the industry even as everyone celebrates Apple’s most recent triumphs. Trying to boost PC sales by giving them features almost necessary in products barely bigger than a small calculator—thus screen-pawing powers—is a form of desperation. It’s one thing to hold a phone in your left hand while your right index finger messes with the screen; quite another to reach out to a screen. From the keyboard to the screen? Sixteen inches, in my case. To the mouse, half that distance. The “touch” solution goes against established habit. But when you haven’t got any good ideas, and there is a deadline by which you must become creative, grabbing popular features from a distinctly different device is a great temptation. The same sort of desperation is present at Microsoft too, to be sure. Windows 8? Already? Windows 7 is only 28 months old, issued in July 2009. And we’re supposed to get excited?


  1. Very interesting post and the delightful, visuals of the analogy you present are right on. What seems clear to me is the fact that computers are reverting to their more natural role of tool for work that requires calculations, industrial strength calculations. So, yes, for serious work as opposed to browsing the web and serving up entertainment.

    Worth noting, however, is the fact that the very young these days expect screens to be interactive. I have on more than one occasion watched a youngster (under 8 years of age) try to interact with screen--a TV, computer monitor, or even screen on a camera--by fingering the screen. Clearly, entertainment device screens will probably all head the way of touch screen technology.

    1. Right. And that would be the most efficient way too. But let's keep the big machines, like, working machines. Lot's of space...and, of course, power and speed!

    2. Amen to that. In fact, the split between entertainment device and working machine should make each better at its mission.