Microsoft Insists the PC Isn't Dead -- but Doesn't Really Believe It

Last Updated Aug 22, 2011 5:12 PM EDT

Does HP's (HPQ) recent move to spin off its PC business underscore the end of the PC era? Not if you ask Microsoft (MSFT), or at least its vice president of corporate communications Frank Shaw. To Redmond, the PC is the hub of technical existence, with e-readers, tablets, set top boxes, and smartphones anything but PC-killers. Instead, Shaw argues on his corporate blog, PCs do a lot more and will remain vital and necessary in the future.

In one sense, he's right. The PC isn't going away completely, because there are important things it can do more easily than the other devices. But a PC-centric world? Oh, no, sorry, those days are done. Furthermore, if you look at Microsoft's strategy, management already knows it. The company just doesn't want to let on, because it would spook investors -- and tank stock prices.

PCs will never die and cars are a fad
Shaw's argument that we're in a "PC plus" age came down to two basic points:
  1. There are a set of important things that PCs do uniquely well, and they aren't going away.
  2. PCs are rapidly and dramatically getting better at doing the things those companions do.
He's right on number 1 -- for now -- and irrelevant on 2. When it comes to creating material, the PC still rules because it has a bigger screen, which means more working real estate, and greater horsepower to do what you want. That said, at least one artist for the New Yorker has created a number of covers on an iPhone. No, not an iPad ... an iPhone. You can also shoot images and video from small handheld devices and even do some basic editing.

A growing number of people can do what they need with mobile devices that are becoming better at what PCs do. Are PCs getting better at what the other devices do? Of course, because the basic capabilities of software improve. But are PCs getting much lighter and faster? Nowhere near enough for people to tote them around they way they might a smartphone, e-reader, or tablet.

Look at us!
Shaw took the official Microsoft corporate line that the PC is the center of the known universe. Only, that's got things backwards. The product isn't the center; the customer is. Microsoft has assumed that the PC and the consumer are the same, and that what's good for the PC -- which means what's good for Windows and Office -- is good for the consumer.

Utter nonsense, of course, because a business can't win in the long run if it expects customers to play second fiddle. That's why smartphones, tablets, e-readers, and the like are gaining success, because they are doing what people want and not expecting customers to do what the vendors want.

But then, Microsoft already knows that it's in a post-PC-centric time. That's why the company created the Xbox and keeps pushing the services available through it. The console is Microsoft admitting that its vision of home entertainment centered around a traditional PC wasn't going to work. If PCs were really that important to everyone, why bother pushing so hard on the smartphone front? After all, the client business wouldn't go away.

Investors don't heart tech
But Microsoft is pushing on all other boundaries because it knows the PC center will not hold. From the company's perspective mere anarchy is loosed upon the industry, and it stands a strong chance of losing its relevance.

What makes it so devilish is that for Microsoft to lose, PCs don't have to disappear. Apple (AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs was right in saying that PCs would be like trucks: large, powerful, necessary for commerce, and not what most people need to drive the majority of the time.

That doesn't mean extinct. But in the tech world, if you make trucks and not cars, you don't get to help form what consumers will use, and so you also lose influence over what businesses do with their systems and how they make them work for customers.

However, many investors have undervalued technology companies and Microsoft has been high up on the list. Management knows how Wall Street could suddenly get buggy should anyone in Redmond admit that the PC has seen its heyday. Look at the 20 percent drop that HP (HPQ) stock took after the company announced last week that it looks to get out of the client PC business.

Why else would Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer claim that an iPad was just a "different form factor of PC?" Microsoft practically trips over its own corporate tongue to avoid admitting that the emperor has no clothes. And yet, it also tries, at the same time, to gain dominance in these new areas.

No wonder the company has such troubles, because it's living in a land of cognitive dissonance. Maybe that explains part of its internal reluctance to push technologies that might challenge the dominance of the company's historic juggernauts.

Related: Image: Flickr user Truthout.org, CC 2.0.
  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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