Sunday, November 4, 2007

Alleged end of the PC era

On Sunday, AP reported from Japan that declining Japanese interest in PCs marked the beginning of a global trend. Balderdash.

Sure, I'm biased. I made my career and reputation in the PC industry — first in industry in then in academia. And that by my family members, I'm considered one of the fastest touch typists they know (from spending several years as a teenager touch-typing conputer programs). Even allowing for that, I think the evidence suggests this claim is overblown.

Here's what the dispatch claims:

Japan's PC market is already shrinking, leading analysts to wonder whether Japan will become the first major market to see a decline in personal computer use some 25 years after it revolutionized household electronics - and whether this could be the picture of things to come in other countries.

"The household PC market is losing momentum to other electronics like flat-panel TVs and mobile phones," said Masahiro Katayama, research group head at market survey firm IDC.
Part of this is just arithmetic sophistry. Certainly I could understand if (worldwide) PC replacement rates slow down — that doesn't mean that their installed base or importance as an access terminal has gone done. Someday, everyone will have a flat panel HD television and the run rate for flat panel TVs will go down, too — but that won't mean that television is no longer important as a medium, or that people no longer value their flat panel TVs. (Remember color CRTs were a mature category for 25 years, but they certainly were important).

More fundamentally, Japan is an atypical market on several fronts.

I am willing to concede that part of the world loves QWERTY (or AZERTY) keyboards and part does not. Until we get portable voice recognition, there is no speed comparision for Western languages for data entry on a laptop vs. a mobile phone. For Japanese and Chinese, the keyboard is not nearly as efficient and thus the mobile phone is a bette substitute. That's not true for large amounts of text production in Western countries.

Finally, we've been hearing for years that the Japanese will waste money on electronic gadgets rather than saving for a house, because they have no hope of ever owning one. Does this presage a global trend of consumers uninterested in home ownership? I hope not, as home ownership proved to be the bedrock of economic and political stability during the 20th century.

The key question to me is: how far off is true speech-to-text, as in the Asimov Foundation novels or 2001? Once I can dictate to a portable device instead of clacking at a keyboard, I'm outta here. My hunch is that this is at least a decade off — my retirement is set for somewhere around 2025, so it may or may not arrive in time to do me any good.

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