Intel proves once and for all that PCs are not coming back

IDF 2013: Rant – Dead and gone because that is what Intel wants for some reason

Intel - logoI went to IDF this year hoping to find a reason that PCs weren’t doomed and came away knowing all key players are actively making things worse. The PC isn’t just in trouble, it is actively being destroyed because no one involved is interested in changing.

Lets face it, the modern Windows 8 PC is a miserable experience, it is not a step forward from its predecessors in any measurable way but the steps backward are as numerous as they are obvious. The forthcoming Windows 8.1 is at best window dressing attempting to placate the critics without actually fixing any of their complaints. In short it sucks and it isn’t going to get better because Microsoft feels no need to change their ways. Look to Windows Phone 6, 6.5, 7, 7.5, and 8 for the previous failing of this “lets not actually fix anything” strategy, specifically the press releases and paid shills proclaiming that this release was the real game changer again and again and again.

Then comes the hardware, you know the part Intel does. It sucks too. Why? Because for the last 5 or so generations it doesn’t actually do anything noticeably better for the user. Sure the CPU performance goes up 10% or so every generation, battery life gets better at a slightly faster pace, and graphics improving extra-linearly but that is irrelevant if you aren’t benchmarking. Why? The basic PC experience sucks and sucking slightly faster, longer, and with marginally less awful graphics addresses none of the actual problems. Intel is giving us incremental things we can live without while denying us all that which we need.

This story is about IDF though and how it unquestionably signaled that PCs are both dead and not coming back. If you have followed PCs for any length of time you will know Intel is desperately trying to figure out what to do to combat the phones and tablets that are eating them alive from the ankles up. It is pretty obvious that the company both doesn’t understand what the problem is and is actively shutting out all voices that explain it to them. How can I be sure of this? Intel is both doubling down on a known losing strategy while publicly disparaging things that would help. Behind the scenes it is however much worse.

For the past two or three years the company has promoted Ultrabooks, a laughable attempt to make Shiny Things For the Stupid (TM)(R)(C)(P). If you make a notebook that is thin enough to be a MacBook Air with none of the elegance, panache, or inherent goodness, remove most of what makes a PC useful, then charge a massive premium for it, guess how well it will sell? SemiAccurate told Intel that the plan was doomed from day one and sure enough the sales figures bore that out. Many times. Painfully.

So when your savior halo device is an utter and embarrassing public failure, what does a company do? A sane one might actually listen to the critics and change tact. Intel however dumped more money in to the line, derided the critics, and ‘fixed’ everything with incrementally better things we didn’t want. The experience however still sucked. Sandy Bridge Ultrabooks didn’t sell so officially the messaging was that they weren’t actually meant to sell until Ivy Bridge came along. Those would be less expensive and have better battery life. Incrementally speaking they were both but for some reason awful and thin didn’t sell, nor did miserable but slightly better battery life compared to a real notebook. The fact that any Ultrabook which wasn’t immediately and obviously terrible was painfully expensive and borderline non-functional seemed lost on Intel. “What’s not to like?” they publicly messaged. Said public responded with 1/8th the sales Intel promised, maybe they do get it.

During the reign of Ivy the market was flooded with removable screens, 180 degree hinges, twist tablets, and detachable everything. SemiAccurate had a surreal moment at CES when an Intel employee pointed to the wall of Ultrabooks on their keynote stage and said, “That is innovation”. Three hinge types in two colors, silver and black, Nobel Prizes are probably imminent. We did laugh once we realized the speaker was serious. Before long the screed changed to, “Wait for Haswell based Ultrabooks, those are the real ones”.

During this time Windows 8 came out and PC sales dropped 15% in the first full quarter after launch. The second quarter was a serious uptick with only an 11% cratering of all PC sales, that is progress right? The third quarter numbers are not out yet but the whispers SemiAccurate hears are not encouraging. At IDF Intel’s CEO stood up on stage and gave his vision of a vibrant PC market for the near future. It included Baytrail devices launching on Windows 8.1 and not Android, that will follow some time next year, plus Haswell 2-in-1s offering incrementally better performance and battery life. On the down side OEMs are being forced to include touch screens, Windows 8, and antivirus in order to get MDF kickbacks, so the price spirals back up before the Haswell price increases. To his credit he did all of this with a straight face but we still wish he had talked process tech and other things Intel actually does well.

To recap a bit, people despise Windows 8 and the market is cratering because Microsoft shut down the ability to buy a PC without it. They are making absolutely none of the changes asked for with 8.1 and publicly don’t see a problem. Ultrabooks have failed because they are slower, feature free, saddled with things users don’t want, and shatteringly expensive. Any questions why we said PCs suck?

What do users want and ask for vocally? Screens that aren’t garbage quality, resolutions that are not worse than mainstream laptops from 2007, SSD instead of error prone and driver dependent ‘hybrid’ garbage, an OS that isn’t grating to the user, decent Wi-Fi, good build quality, and a decent price. None of this is rocket science, it is just a request to undo the regression of the past 4-5 years of PC ‘advancements’.

In response to these painfully obvious problems, what does Intel do? They actually mandated Windows 8/8.1 to get kickbacks, mandated touch screens, mandated a paid anti-virus for said insecure OS, and jacked the prices way up with Haswell. What do users get in return? Slightly better performance, slightly better battery life, and a step up in graphics performance. Notice how many of the solutions Intel mandates are listed as problems by users? Notice how many of the things users didn’t want were in fact moved to the mandatory column from optional? See any problems?

More expensive things people don’t want are not usually a retail hit but Intel seems to think otherwise. But wait, there’s more! In the second keynote Intel introduced Broadwell, some of which are pin compatible with Haswell. Guess what that brings? Slightly higher performance, slightly better battery life, and slightly better graphics performance. What they didn’t say is that prices are going way way up, features are being gutted, and many of the additional features users like are being actively precluded. More things we don’t need and once again all the things consumers actively dislike are again mandatory, but it costs more.

In the end Intel seems hell-bent on actively denying users the things they want while jacking the prices of PCs way up. The company has demonstrated its ability to force OEMs to do their bidding but refuses to wield that power for anything that won’t destroy the market. Their CEO and GM of the PC client group both touted incremental gains in form factors roundly rejected by the market and dodged questions about forcing objectionable bits down users throats for more money. Intel’s strategy to save PCs failed three years ago and we are about to launch generation four while accelerating towards a proverbial brick wall. Haswell Ultrabooks are a regression, Broadwell ones are worse, Bay Trail launches without Android, and Windows 8/8.1 with touch screens are now mandatory. It is all just crap that no one wants at a higher price with unnecessary incremental improvements. Again. PCs have no chance and Intel thinks it is just peachy.S|A

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Charlie Demerjian

Roving engine of chaos and snide remarks at SemiAccurate
Charlie Demerjian is the founder of Stone Arch Networking Services and is a technology news site; addressing hardware design, software selection, customization, securing and maintenance, with over one million views per month. He is a technologist and analyst specializing in semiconductors, system and network architecture. As head writer of, he regularly advises writers, analysts, and industry executives on technical matters and long lead industry trends. Charlie is also available through Guidepoint and Mosaic. FullyAccurate