EDITOR'S DESK: PC abandonment is no surprise, yet sad

Thomas R. Temin

No one should be surprised that IBM Corp. is trying to unload its PC business to a company in China, but that doesn't mean it's not sad.

PCs'and this no surprise either'have become commodities, but with none of the reliability, predictability or manageability of real appliances.

That the term 'commodity' is regularly applied to PCs should be shameful to the IT industry. Yes, they are standard products that are generally interchangeable and mainly run the same software. But they are hardly like crude oil or pork bellies.

That the commodity moniker sticks strongly implies a lack of innovation by makers, which in turn means the lowest-cost producer wins. Which is exactly what led IBM to sell out.

Sun Microsystems Inc. CEO Scott McNealy once derided Dell Inc. for 'innovating handles and cases.' But that begged the point. Dell cheerfully admits to not leading on technology. It wins by cutting costs in manufacturing and distribution.

That may not drive the technology, but at least it's a useful contribution to the industry. And Dell makes money in PCs at levels IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co. and others don't.

So who innovates PC technology itself, besides chipmakers Intel Corp. and Ad- vanced Micro Devices Inc.? Certainly not the software industry.

Get beyond the thrill of function bloat, and most software is pretty poor in quality, to say nothing of vulnerable. Ease of use, as Yale University scholar David Gelernter recently argued in a Wall Street Journal article, hasn't really improved much in years. The typical PC as a piece of hardware is still too bulky, ugly and tough to service.

No wonder people view PCs as commodities and buy on price. What has the industry done to change that?

An old editor friend of mine used to grouse that while Japan steadily innovated automotive engine, electronics and chassis technology through the late '60s and on into the oil shocks of the '70s, thereby challenging America's very industrial pre-eminence, Detroit countered with hideaway windshield wipers.

Who will be the Toyota of PCs?

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