The time has long since past when a computer manufacturer could get by on shipping tin. The margins on computer equipment are so low that, most of the time, the equipment they sell is just a loss leader for another part of the business. Nowadays the vast majority of most large computer company’s revenue comes from their services division, usually under the guise of providing the customer a holistic solution rather than just another piece of tin. Thus for many companies the past couple decades have seen them transform from pure hardware businesses into more services focused companies, with several attempting more radical transformations in order to stay relevant. HP has become the most recent company to do this, announcing that they will be splitting the company in half.
HP will now divest itself into 2 different companies. The first will be Hewlett Packard Enterprise comprising of their server market, services branch and software group. The second will be purely consumer focused, comprising of their personal computer business and their printing branch. If you were going to split a PC business this is pretty much how you’d do it as whilst these functions are somewhat complimentary to each other (especially if you want to be the “end to end” supplier for all things computing) there’s just as many times when they’re at odds. HP’s overarching strategy with this split is to have two companies that can be more agile and innovative in their respective markets and, hopefully, see better margins because of it.
When I first heard the rumours swirling about this potential split the first question that popped into my head was “Where is the services business going?”. As I alluded to before the services business is the money maker for pretty much every large PC manufacturer these days and in this case the enterprise part of HP has come away with it. The numbers only give a slight lead to the new enterprise business in terms of revenue and profit however with the hardware business has been on a slow decline for the past few years which, if I’m honest, paints a bleak picture for HP Inc. going forward. There’s nothing to stop them from developing a services capability (indeed parts of the consumer business already have that) however in its current form I’d put my money on HP Inc. being the one who’s worse off out of this deal.
That could change however if HP’s rhetoric has some merit to it. HP, as it stands today, is an amalgamation of dozens of large companies that it acquired over the years and whilst they all had a similar core theme of being in the IT business there really wasn’t a driving overarching goal for them to adhere to. The split gives them an opportunity to define that more clearly for each of the respective companies, allowing them to more clearly define their mission within each of their designated market segments. Whether that will translate into the innovation and agility that they’re seeking is something we’ll have to see as this is yet another unprecedented change from a large IT conglomerate.
As someone who’s been involved in the IT industry for the better part of 2 decades now the amount of change that’s happened in the last couple years has been, honestly, staggering. We’ve seen IBM sell off some of its core manufacturing capability (the one no one got fired for buying), Dell buy back all its stock to become a private company again and now HP, the last of the 3 PC giants, divest itself into 2 companies. It will likely take years before all the effects of these changes are really felt but suffice to say that the PC industry of the future will look radically different to that of the past.
FULL DISCLOSURE: The writer is a current employee of Dell. All opinions expressed in this article are of the writer’s own and are not representative of Dell.
I like to think of myself as a good customer, having spent a good 6 years on the other side of the consumer equation. Whilst I might be ruthless in my product selection once your product is past that hurdle you’re guaranteed a whole bunch of free marketing from me, usually in the form of recommendations to my friends and sometimes even here on this blog. It’s not much but I’ll be damned if I haven’t swayed dozens of people to products that I’ve bought solely on my recommendation. It goes both ways though so if your product (or business practices) are terrible then you can be assured I’ll be voting with my wallet and encouraging others to do so.
Today, I’m going to do exactly that.
So for my birthday last year my loving wife bought me one of the TRON keyboards from Razer. It’s a very pretty keyboard but it’s unfortunately not all that great for gaming thanks to the extraordinarily large keys and tendency for the keys to get stuck in the on position when several are pressed together. Figuring that it would make a great keyboard for either my spare test machine or media PC I set about looking for a potential replacement keyboard, something more suited to my main purpose of gaming.
I had heard good things about the Razer series of mechanical keyboards. These are preferred for gaming due to their distinct actuation points rather than the rubber domes that are common on most keyboards today (including the TRON keyboard I have now). They’re also renowned for being quite loud due to their mechanical action and the keyboard I had my eye on, the Razer BlackWidow Ultimate is known for having some of the loudest keys around thanks to Cherry MX Blue¹ type switches. Razer does make the same keyboard in a stealth option which uses the quieter MX Brown switches, something that I’d prefer to have so I don’t get driven insane by the loud clicking.
So of course I started looking around for somewhere to get the keyboard. Strange though all my usual sites don’t seem to stock it, but they do stock every other keyboard. Frustrated I check Razer’s store and it’s available through there for US$139.99. Googling around reveals that the stealth version is exclusive to the Razer online store. Fair enough I thought, the price is a little on the high side but it’s one of those things that you buy once and don’t replace for a good while. Attempting to follow the order screen through to see how much the total would be lead me to a brick wall, not being able to ship it to Australia.
Undeterred I saw that they had an Australian version of the store and the keyboard was available in there. The price, however, was no where near what I expected being a whopping $90 greater than its USA counterpart. Now Australia is renowned for getting gouged on pretty much everything, including in places where distribution doesn’t matter like Steam, but I still don’t tolerate companies that do it. Frustrated I tweeted at Razer about it, hoping for some kind of response but alas I got nothing. I could use a remailer service to get the keyboard here but then I’d be giving my money to a company that obviously doesn’t respect its customers enough to price their products fairly.
So instead I went looking elsewhere for a similar product and not 5 minutes later did I come across the Corsair K90 which ticks all the same boxes and has the better Cherry MX Red switches to boot. It might be more expensive than the stealth Razer in the USA but it’s available here from pretty much everywhere. Corsair also have a history of not treating their customers like crap either, I’ve sent several sticks of faulty memory back to them only to get better memory in return. I’m more than happy to give them my money, especially when it means not giving any more to Razer.
Will Razer respond to this post? Probably not, but it needs to be known that Razer have no respect for Australian consumers if it’s trying to pull crap like this. I’m doing the only thing a consumer can: voice their discontent and then vote with their wallet. If enough people don’t put up with these kind of shenanigans then maybe one day we’ll be able to buy products in Australia at fair market prices rather than at the garbage, price gouging levels we get today.
¹If you’re wondering what the hell I’m on about here check out this guide to mechanical keyboards on overlock.net to get the low down on the different types.
We often forget that the idea of a personal computer is an extremely modern one, considering how ingrained in our lives they have become. Indeed the first personal computers appeared around 40 years ago and it took decades for them to become a fixture as common as the television in modern households. The last 2 decades have seen an explosion in the adoption rate of personal computers growing at double digit rates nearly every year. Still even though today’s personal computers are leaps and bounds above their predecessors in terms of functionality they still share the common keyboard, monitor and mouse configuration that’s been present for decades despite many attempts to reinvent them.
There does however seem to be a market for curated computing devices that, whilst lacking the power of their bigger brethren, are capable of performing a subset of their tasks. I first began to notice this trend way back when I was still working in retail as many customer’s requirements for a PC rarely amounted to more than “email, web surfing and writing a few documents”. Even back then (2000~2006) even the most rudimentary of the PC line I had to sell would cover this off quite aptly and more often than not I’d send them home with the cheapest PC available, leaving the computing beasts to gather dust in the corner. To me it seemed that unless you were doing photo/video editing or gaming you could buy a PC that would last the better part of 5 years before having to think about upgrading, and even then only because it would be so cheap to do so.
The trend towards such devices began about 4 years ago with the creation of the netbook class of personal computing devices. Whilst still retaining much of the functionality of their ancestors netbooks opted for a small form factor and low specifications in order to keep costs down. I, like many geeks of the time, saw them as nothing more than a distraction as they filled a need that didn’t exist failing to remember the lessons I had learned many years before. The netbook form factor proved to be a wild success with many people replacing their PCs in favor of the smaller platform. They were however still fully fledged PCs.
Then along came Apple with their vision of creating yet another niche and filling it with their product. I am of course talking about the iPad which has enjoyed wild success and created the very niche that Apple dreamed of creating. Like with netbooks I struggled with the idea that there could be a place in my home for yet another computing device since I could already do whatever I wanted. However just like the netbooks before them I finally came around to the idea of having a tablet in my house and that got me thinking, maybe the curated experience is all most people need.
Perhaps the PC is better off as an appliance, at least for most people.
For the everyman their requirements for a computing device outside the workplace don’t usually extend past the typical “email, web and document editing” holy trinity. Tablets, whilst being far from an ideal platform to do all those tasks aptly (well, in my opinion anyway) they’re good enough to replace a PC for most people outright. Indeed the other Steve behind Apple, Mr Wozniak, has said that tablets are PCs for everyone else:
“The tablet is not necessarily for the people in this room,” Wozniak told the audience of enterprise storage engineers. “It’s for the normal people in the world,” Wozniak said.
“I think Steve Jobs had that intention from the day we started Apple, but it was just hard to get there, because we had to go through a lot of steps where you connected to things, and (eventually) computers grew up to where they could do … normal consumer appliance things,” Wozniak said.
If you consider the PC as a household appliance then the tablet form factor starts to make a lot of sense. Sure it can’t do everything but it can do a good chunk of those tasks very well and the barrier to using them is a whole lot lower than that of a fully fledged PC. Plus unlike a desktop or laptop they don’t seem out of place when used in a social situation or simply lying around on the coffee table. Tablets really do seem to be a good device for the large majority of people who’s computing needs barely stress today’s incredibly powerful PCs.
Does that mean tablets should replace PCs outright? Hell no, there’s still many tasks that are far more aptly done on PC and the features that make a tablet convenient (small size, curated experience) are also its most limiting factors. Indeed the power of tablets is built on the foundations that the PC has laid before it with many tablets still relying on their PC brethren to provide certain capabilities. I think regular users will gravitate more towards the tablet platform but it will still be a long time before the good old keyboard, monitor and mouse are gone.
3D is one of those technologies that I’m both endlessly infatuated and frustrated with. Just over a year ago I saw Avatar in 3D and for me it was the first movie ever to use the technology in a way that wasn’t gimmicky but served as a tool to enable creative expression. Cameron’s work on getting the technology to the point where he could use it as such was something to be commended but what unfortunately followed was a long stream of movies jumping on the 3D bandwagon, hoping that it would be their ticket to Avatar like success. Since then I’ve only bothered to see one other movie in 3D (Tron: Legacy) as not one other movie demonstrated their use of 3D as anything other than following the fad and utterly failing to understand the art that is 3D.
Last year was the debut of consumer level 3D devices with the initial forays being the usual TVs and 3D enabled media players. Soon afterwards we began to see the introduction of some 3D capable cameras allowing the home user to create their very own 3D movies. Industry support for the format was way ahead of the curve with media sharing sites like YouTube allowing users to view 3D clips and video editing software supporting the format long before it hit the consumer level. We even had Nintendo announce that their next generation portable would be called the 3DS and boast a glasses free 3D screen at the top. Truly 3D had hit the mainstream as anyone and everyone jumped to get in on the latest technology craze.
Indeed the 3D trend has become so pervasive that even today as I strolled through some of my RSS reader backlog I came across not one, but two articles relating to upcoming 3D products. The first is set to be the world’s first 3D smartphone, the LG Optimus 3D. It boasts both a 3D capable camera and glasses free 3D screen along with the usual smartphone specs we’ve come to expect from high end Android devices. The second was that NVIDIA’s current roadmap shows that they’re planning to develop part of their Tegra line (for tablets) with built in 3D technology. Looking over all these products I can’t help but feel that there’s really little point to having 3D on consumer devices, especially portable ones like smartphones.
3D in cinemas makes quite a lot of sense, it’s another tool in the director’s kit to express themselves when creating their movie experience. On a handset or tablet you’re not really there to be immersed in something, you’re usually consuming small bits of information for short periods. Adding 3D into that experience really doesn’t enhance the experience at all, in fact I’d dare say that it would detract from it thanks to the depth of field placing objects in a virtual space that in reality is behind the hand that’s holding it. There is the possibility that 3D will enable a new kind of user interface that’s far more intuitive to the regular user than what’s currently available but I fail to see how the addition of depth of field to a hand held device will manage to accomplish that.
I could just be romanticising 3D technology as something best left to the creative types but if the current fad is anything to go by 3D is unfortunately more often misused as a cheap play to bilk consumers for a “better” experience. Sure some of the technology improvements of the recent past can trace their roots back to 3D (hello cheap 120Hz LCD screens) but for the most part 3D is just used as an excuse to charge more for the same experience. I’ve yet to see any convincing figures on how 3D products are doing out in the market but anecdotally it’s failed to gain traction amongst those who I know. Who knows maybe the LG Optimus 3D will turn out to be something really groovy but as far as I can tell now it’s simply yet another gimmick phone that’s attempting to cash in on the current industry obsession with 3D, just like every other 3D consumer product out there.
Last year Intel made headlines by releasing the X25-E, an amazing piece of hardware that showed everyone that it was possible to get a large amount of flash and use it as a main disk drive without having to spend thousands of dollars on custom hardware. Even though the price tag was even outside most enthusiasts price ranges it still came out as the piece of hardware that everyone wanted and dreamed about.
Fast forward a year and several other players have entered the SSD market space. Competition is always a good thing as it will lead to companies fighting it out by offering products at varying price points in order to entice people into the market. However, although there appeared to be competition on the outside a deeper look into most of the other drives showed that they shared a controller (from JMicron, the JMF602B MLC) except for Samsung and Intel. Unfortunately these drives focused on sequential throughput (transferring big files and the like) at the cost of random write performance. This in turn made all operating systems that were installed on them appeared to freeze for seconds at a time, since any Operating System is constantly writing small things to disk in the background.
However, thanks to a recent AnandTech reviewer, one company has stepped up to the plate and addressed these issues, giving a low cost option (circa $400 for a 60GB drive, as oppose to Intel’s $900 for 32GB) for people wanting to try SSDs but not put up with a freezing computer. One of my tech friends just informed me that a recent update to the firmware of the drive saw improvements up to 3~4 times that of the original drive, an amazing improvement by any metric.
So are these things worth the money? Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to believe they are. These things really aren’t meant to be your main storage drive and once the paradigm shifts from disks being slow I believe you’ll see many more systems built around a tiered storage arrangement. Have your OS and favourite applications on the SSD and keep your giant lumbering magnetic disks trundling along in the background holding all your photos, music and the like. There’s always been a strong disconnect between the blistering fast memory of your computer when compared to the slow crawl of the hard disk and it would seem that SSDs will bridge that gap, making the modern PC a much more usable device.
I am fortunate enough to be working with some of the latest gear from HP which includes solid state drives (for work, of course! :)). For the hardware geeks out there we’ve just taken delivery of 2 HP C7000 Blade Chassis, 4 BL495c FLEX10 blades with 32GB of memory and dual 32GB SSD drives (they’re Samsung SLC drives) and all the bibs and bobs that are needed to hook all this up as our new VMware environment. It is a pity that they won’t let me put them together myself (How dare they tempt a geek with a myriad of boxes of components!) but I can understand my boss’ requirements of having someone else do it, just so we can blame them should anything go wrong.
So we’ve seen what SSDs can do for the consumer market, I’ll let you know how they go in the corporate world 🙂