The Industry the PC Built

Looking Back

The PC turns 20 this Sunday amid declining demand in an industry that seems genetically profitless. Today is not the PCs proudest moment, but for me and countless others, its provided a great living. The cop beat got old around 1980, just before the PC came into its own.

Crediting the PC with igniting a revolution in the workplace is a stretch. More than anything, the PC and technologies that grew up around it catapulted the U.S. economy out of its 70s funk. In the 80s, the PC restored Americas pre-eminence as a technology leader and innovator.

As for its impact in the workplace, if quality of life is the yardstick, Im not convinced the PC has had a huge effect. Life is better with it than without. Lets leave it at that.

The explanation for the straits the PC is in today is clear. The industry suffers from the same malaise that afflicts any high-volume manufacturing gig in which contestants slug it out to be the lowest-cost quality supplier. The lead now belongs to Dell, the most aggressive and efficient of the remaining quintet of PC makers.

IBM, the most formidable innovator and launcher of the PC, has always been burdened with a high cost structure. (Ironically, IBMs name was absent from the invitation for the PC birthday party planned for this Wednesday in San Jose, Calif. Intel and Microsoft are the primary hosts.)

Hewlett-Packard made market share inroads until recently but has been dragged down by the consumer market and inefficient distribution. Likewise, Gateway is tied to the consumer market. Apple stands alone, and by all market reckoning should have expired years ago.

More than anything, though, the industry has been torpedoed by lackluster demand. The good news is that soon we should have an adequate PC appliance for about $200. More will be packed into less space, but the innards will be largely the same.

Indeed, the PC has helped make the world a smaller place, but so has inexpensive air travel, navigational gadgets such as GPS, NAFTA, cell phones, the Internet and the Space Shuttle program. The PC is a practical work tool, the economics of which benefit consumers and challenge manufacturers. It is the highly visible terminus for another significant technology, known as networking (Novell, you deserved a better fate).

Perhaps the unprecedented realities socking technology today have made me less than misty-eyed about the PC. In 1983, when I started with PC Week, e-mail was unheard of, and having a PC on ones desk was pure status. When I got my IBM PC AT Model 239 in 1985, I built a special wood platform to put underneath so it would be more visible.

PCs were cool through the 80s and provided impetus for the economy. Today, theyre marginally more interesting than TV sets and just about as common. It appears the love affair with the PC has dissipated over time. Happy birthday, anyway.