Computers: Fast at Last

Opinion: Price and service will determine the survival of PC makers.

The computer industry is suffering today—that is clear. but I believe the cause is not widely appreciated—or even known. Whats more, theres absolutely nothing that can be done about it.

Simply put, the cause of this problem is that fewer and fewer computer users think their systems are too slow. Ive invented what I call the Forrest Curve to illustrate this .

This curve has a generally downward slope, with occasional upward blips caused by inventions such as relational databases, X Window System, Windows NT, multimedia, and handwriting and speech recognition. There always have been and always will be such blips.

Sometimes these blips are partially flattened by special-purpose hardware, but such hardware usually has a short life span and is doomed to financial failure due to small production volumes. General-purpose hardware eventually catches up.

The Forrest Curve indicates that the number of people who think their computers are too slow is approaching zero. Sure, some high-performance computing users always will consume any amount of available computer resources; these guys are why the Forrest Curve never reaches zero. In spite of their needs, however, they cant reshape the Forrest Curve because they are too small a market.

The bottom line is that the widespread axiom that states computing power usage expands to consume all available computer cycles is no longer true.

The Forrest Curve indicates that computer vendors are going to have a tougher and tougher time selling computers because most people will need a new computer only when an old one breaks. It also means that people no longer will buy computers based on performance, as they did in what now seems like the Dark Ages. Instead, when somebody decides to buy a new computer, price and service will determine their choice.

These days, nobody except Dell is making significant money selling PCs, and Dells success has nothing to do with technology and lots to do with a deep understanding of logistics and marketing. The result is that Dell has an attractive combination of price and service.

The Forrest Curve points to the commoditization of computer technology. The different brands of computers are essentially the same, just as different brands of flour and sugar are essentially the same.

Buying a computer is not much different from buying a basket in Tijuana. Both are typically inexpensive and generally well-made. The only way for computer vendors to survive is to remember this and to remember that price and service will be what makes or breaks them.

Caveat vendor!

Jon Forrest is a computer resources manager at the University of California at Berkeley; his e-mail address is Free Spectrum is a forum for the IT community and welcomes contributions. Send submissions to


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