Opinion: Does hardware matter anymore?

Hardware is often an afterthought in the enterprise and likely to be driven as much by employees' preferences as by centralided IT planning

There was a time when the launch of a new generation of PCs was a major event in the tech world. Home users could barely wait to put the new hardware through its paces, and enterprises planned their architecture and budgets around the new gear.

Those days are long gone. Today, hardware is often an afterthought in the enterprise and likely to be driven as much by employees' preferences as by centralized IT planning. Expensive, high-powered machines feel as outdated as V-8 muscle cars. In a world where computing is often done in the cloud, or else in short, data-intensive bursts on mobile devices, hardware simply doesn't matter much. This has significant implications not just for hardware makers, but for Microsoft, Google, Apple and Amazon as well.

In the days of muscle machines, Microsoft had an operating system monopoly. Today, tablets and smartphones are often used for tasks that PCs once performed, and when you take those devices into account, Microsoft has become an also-ran. A Goldman Sachs report says that if you combine traditional computers, tablets and smartphones, Microsoft has a 20% operating system market share, with Google at 42% and Apple at 24%.

A Gartner report recently concluded that tablets will soon be people's main computing devices, with PCs used only secondarily. That's backed up by a report by DisplaySearch, which says that this year, tablets will outsell notebooks by a wide margin -- more than 240 million tablets versus 207 million notebooks.

Who are the winners and losers? Google is the biggest winner today, and will be even more so tomorrow. It makes money from ads, served up not just during searches, but also in Google services such as Gmail and Google Maps. Android is likely to continue to outsell the competition, which means more users, more market share and more revenue.

There are signs that Google may also expand in the notebook market with its Chromebooks. Acer President Jim Wong, who described the Windows 8 launch as "not successful," touts his company's Chromebooks. He says they account for 5% to 10% of Acer's U.S. sales, and he's considering selling them in other developed markets. Chromebooks aren't powerful pieces of hardware -- they're stripped down and basic. But for anyone who has embraced Internet-based computing, they're a steal at $199.

Another big winner will be Amazon. The more cheap devices with Internet access in use, the more people will buy online.

Microsoft is clearly the biggest loser. Its plunging market share and inability to break into mobile in a serious way could lead to a low-growth future dependent on big-ticket corporate sales with little or no traction in the lucrative consumer market.

Apple is a potential big loser as well. All but its staunchest fans may grow weary of paying a premium for a Mac when they can buy a cheap Chromebook that will do whatever they need in an always-connected world. And although Apple is the leader in tablets and has a big share of the smartphone market, it's not clear how long that will continue. Low-cost Android tablets have eaten into its market share. Orders for iPhone displays are said to be about half of what Apple had planned for the upcoming quarter.

Apple's revenue is largely based on hardware sales. If those decline, the company will be in jeopardy.

So get ready for a sleek new world, devoid of hardware screamers and less and less dominated by Microsoft and Apple.

Preston Gralla is a Computerworld.com contributing editor and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Read more about hardware in Computerworld's Hardware Topic Center.

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