Among Small Vendors, PC Innovation Thrives

There is a lot more going on in the PC business than many realize.

That company named Other continues to be the biggest PC vendor around.

With the release of the 2003 PC shipment numbers, IDCs computer counters once again have Other on top. Worldwide, Other was in the lead with 53.3 percent, while second was captured by Dell at 16.9 percent. In the fourth quarter, the big news was Hewlett-Packard inching out Dell in shipments at 16.9 percent to 16.3 percent. In the United States, Other was still on top for 2003 with 36.3 percent, while Dell held the No. 2 position at 30.9 percent.

All those percentages may give you a headache, but the simple message behind them is that there is a lot more going on in the PC business than many realize.

The computer on a desk is still the central hub of the information workers existence. As a rule, information workers are neither laboring on diskless workstations nor thumb-punching their cell phones to answer e-mail. The combination of operating system, processor, hard drive, display, keyboard and mouse, all wired together in—except for the occasional crash—harmony, is still the platform for getting work done, whether in Palo Alto or Bombay. Like paper that refused to go away despite the so-called "paperless office," the PC endures and even multiplies the more that companies try to remove it.

Many of the reasons for replacing those old computers with new desktop systems are being provided by Other. In looking at his companys early results for the 2003 PC market, IDC researcher Roger Kay noted in an e-mail exchange: "Small form factor definitely rose, as did portables with a vengeance. There are some interesting vendors in the white-box area but no one rising so fast as to break into the top 10."

Among the major changes in the top 10, the resurgence of HP stands out. Despite the misgivings of many, including my own, the combination of HP and Compaq is working and working well. The differences between business and home computers, both on the desktop and the laptop, continue to dwindle. That plays to HPs strengths in volume manufacturing and the retail channel, a legacy from the Compaq heritage. The other change of significance is a surprise: the re-emergence of eMachines, a company strong in the consumer channel that has overcome quality concerns. eMachines moved up to fourth in U.S. PC shipments for the fourth quarter.

As four or five vendors coalesce at the top end of the PC business, they will have an increasingly difficult time coming out with a radically new system that will set the pace for design or power. Those pacesetting systems will be the preserve of the Other vendors, including smaller computer manufacturers, white-box suppliers or perhaps a larger Asian vendor that needs a big bang to enter the U.S. market. It is reminiscent of the automobile industry, in which the Big Three manufacturers were all building similar sets of products until foreign competitors introduced new designs combined with better reliability to reset the market.

What would you like on your desktop—a new monitor? Check out the energy and space savings of some of the new flat-panel designs available from Nimble Microsystems. How about a fanless or extremely quiet desktop replacement in a cool, small-form-factor container? Take a look at the wares of Shuttle Computer. Elitegroup Computer Systems offers a design that keeps things cool by setting the heat-generating power unit outside the box. An LED display shows the clock rate of the processor inside. Nice.

Alternatively, you might want an operating system that crashes less frequently than your refrigerator, that is as tough to crack as a case-hardened padlock, and puts you in charge of updates, changes and competitive offerings. If so, then examine the broad selection of white-box PCs running Linux.

The choices are out there. They may not come from the big names in the PC market, but sooner or later, innovative designs from Other will find their way to your desktop.

Editor in Chief Eric Lundquists e-mail address is