The point of no differentiation

I spent a bit of time last week with a couple of salespeople from one of the big PC manufacturers. It was an eye-opening experience.

It’s been awhile since I’ve looked at that end of the devices business. When I was at Microsoft in those heady days in the lead up to and release of Windows 8 there was huge anticipation within the firm as to the creative innovation that was about to be unleashed with the fusion of personal computing operating system and touch screen devices. There was, we were sure, going to be huge diversity in new types of devices yet unimagined.

Five years on and your choices are: things that are laptops; things that are laptops where the screen can be folded back to make it tablet-y (discounting the girth and the weird feeling of keyboard on the back); things that are laptops where the screen can be pulled clean off to make it a tablet; and things that are (or are rip-offs of) Surface, which are a tablet for which the keyboard costs extra.

Pretty much all of these form factors were available within 6 months of Windows 8 being released. Innovation is now all about marginal gain. The manufacturer’s salespeople really struggled when I asked what it was that differentiated their products from the competition. I felt quite sorry for them (although not sorry enough to have not asked the question).

It shouldn’t be surprising. The laptop, thin and light as they are now, with reasonable battery life and no longer with the ability to singe your knees, have pretty much reached their apogee. Once you get to that point, the only point of real differentiation becomes in brand (sewn up by Apple in the PC and phone market) or on price. It’s no wonder that the US manufacturers of PCs have bailed or are bailing out. PCs are dead. But their margin is dying…

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