No Magic Bullet: Making All Computers Look Like Tablets Will Not Save PC Makers

Last Updated Feb 8, 2011 8:33 AM EST

HP (HPQ) has announced two new lines of all-in-one desktop PCs that recline. The theory is that multi-touch interfaces on a vertical screen are awkward to use. Instead, a user can tip the screen back and more easily touch the surface without straining to keep an arm up.

Chalk up another consumer insight win for Apple (AAPL), which has said that multi-touch interfaces get tiring when users have to keep their arms in the air with a vertical surface. Maybe HP has learned something from experience with its multi-touch monitors.

Unfortunately, it's more likely a sign that tech companies like HP remain desperate to find some kind of magic bullet that will solve their problems, no matter what consumers are doing.

Attack of the clones
That, at least, would explain why PC makers seem determined to turn trends -- even fads -- into one-size-fits-all standards for the computer industry. This sort of thinking has so far given us tablets that look like PCs, desktops that look like tablets, and everything you can imagine re-envisioned as an iPad.

Consider: the iPhone barely a proven success when vendors like HP and Dell decided that multi-touch was a natural addition to the desktop. About seven months ago, HP even came out with the first multi-touch desktop tablet PC. What, exactly, does that phrase conjure up for you -- a portable device stuck on top of a desk, or a desktop PC you can tuck under your arm and carry around?

Apple,which has led the most inventive uses of touch interfaces, has passed on making a desktop machine nothing but a tablet tipped vertically. The company clearly intends to fuse Mac OS and iOS, is already moving interface aspects into the Mac, and yet created a multi-touch touchpad. Why? Because the company knows that making its target customers happy is the best way to profits. The company may not please everyone with its control over the entire iPad/iPhone ecosystem, but at least in terms of hardware and interface design, people come first.

What other vendors are doing is cynical. Companies look at something that works, like an iPhone, and treats design and aesthetics as gimmicks that they can simply plaster onto products, whether or not the application actually works for the customers. And then they hope that the novelty will drive high prices to boost margins. Look at Motorola (MMI), whose upcoming Xoom tablet will go for $800. For what? The device in the we-want-a-Super-Bowl-ad-like-the-famous-Apple-one spot?

The vendors run around because they're always behind the market. Certainly, they want to make money, but they often don't in a sustainable way. Instead, they concentrate on the quick fix, customer experience and relationships be damned. They prop up today with what should be next year's legacy, readily burning consumers who make the mistake of trusting that the products they buy will offer a benefit.

For too long, vendors have been happy to coast along, assuming that the future would always be chips by Intel running Microsoft Windows. Instead of supporting true innovation, they looked for the easy route to success, superficially plastering on the work of others. But the results have been abysmal. How could it be anything else? The companies haven't shown a real interest in what customers were doing or what they needed. The result: Virtually the entire market has become a giant commodity wading pool.

Over the years, executives got away with abysmal decisions and strategies. However, now as new choices appear -- tablets, smartphones, cloud computing, digital media -- people begin to use computing in entirely new ways. Old assumptions and business models, like making people buy more powerful (and expensive) computers instead of only the computing resources they need at a given time, or taking an entire book or album instead of the pieces that interest them, simply won't work.

The industry is changing at a speed that few understand. According to some estimates, the combination of tablets and smartphones will move past PC sales this year or next. Those in the manufacturing old guard want to convince others -- or maybe just themselves -- that these smaller, lighter, less encompassing devices are only an adjunct to PC sales, not a replacement. The view flies in the face of the reality around them.

You could understand how such market upheaval would make managers long for stability. But closing your eyes and plastering this, that, and the other onto tired product lines in blind reaction isn't the answer.

Related: Image: morgueFile user msmediadesign.
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    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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