As even a cursory glance at the business pages will show, these are the worst of times for the PC industry. Not only have home machines like Commodore and IBM's PCjr been brutalized in the market, business PC sales also have shriveled. Wang, Digital Equipment Corp., Apple Computer -- and, yes, even IBM -- all are suffering the pain of slower growth and shrinking profit margins in the sluggish PC market.
Though PC prices have dropped, their sales have stalled. Software prices have declined, but sales growth hasn't matched expectations. In raw economic terms, that shouldn't happen.
So why is it happening, and especially now?
Some of the more optimistic industry experts attribute the slowdown to indigestion -- that is, a lot of big companies have gorged themselves on PC purchases and are trying to digest all that new technology before going out for another wave of consuming.
The doomsayers, in their rented sackcloth and ashes, proclaim the business PC a fad -- the digital equivalent of the hula hoop -- much as home computers have seemed to be. They assert that the much vaunted "PC Revolution" is a minor insurrection, with only a small fraction of the nation's work force interested in or capable of using the machines on a day-to-day basis for their jobs.
At this point, columnists usually write something like "The truth lies somewhere in between. . . ." Not so here. There may be molecules of truth in both positions, but I think the real problem is that the PC market has changed dramatically over the last 12 months -- and nobody seems to appreciate that.
To put it crudely, the "power user" market is just about saturated.
What are power users? They're the ones who own an IBM XT and like nothing better than exploring the intricacies of Lotus 1-2-3 and DBase III. They're the ones who've spent hours poring over the manuals and calling customer support on the toll-free number. They're the ones to whom you are referred when you're thinking about buying a personal computer for business use.
And therein lies the PC paradox. Naive people who know very little about computers are asking advice from people who really know computers and use them as an integral part of their work life. On the surface, that makes a lot of sense: Why not ask an expert? But dig a little deeper, and you'll see it is foolhardy. The expert and the first-time PC user often have radically different needs.
Business people seeking advice from power users quickly are discovering that they don't have the time or money it takes to become a power user -- nor the inclination. So they aren't buying computers and software.
To draw an analogy: I can go to Kareem Abdul Jabbar and ask him for advice on how to shoot a sky hook. Even assuming that I'm as athletically coordinated as Jabbar and am willing to spend the hours necessary to perfect the technique, I'm still never going to be 7 feet tall and play in the NBA. Consequently, my effort is wasted.
In essence, most people have radically different computational needs from the power users who have fueled the dramatic growth of the PC industry these last few years.
Ever hear the joke that there are two kinds of people in the world -- those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don't? Well, there are two kinds of information users: People who like exploring a variety of answers to questions and those who want the answers now. Period.
Right now, there's a lot of software out there that lets people build quantitative models of reality -- such as spreadsheets -- to help them make decisions. That't fine if you like exploring options. But many managers I know want answers to their questions. They don't want to play spreadsheet games.
It's the difference between a wide-ranging discussion with a staff assistant about the impact of the strong dollar on exports versus a request for a 500-word report on the effect of the strong dollar on one company's international sales. The former tells you a lot of interesting and provocative things -- but more than you need to know.
Most PC hardware and software companies have done little to identify the needs of non-power users and business people who don't want to play around with models -- people I'll call "functional users."
The functional user is interested in using the PC for very specific and clearly defined tasks. Time is money and the functional user doesn't want to spend much of either on a machine that will be used for a fairly narrow task domain.
The point: People not only have different computational needs, they also have different computational styles. The PC industry has done little to address this seemingly obvious fact. The result is that the top end of the market is saturated with products aimed at power users and computer junkies.
Of course I'm aware that there's the Macintosh and a host of IBM-compatible software designed to be "user friendly" and "powerful but simple" -- but they aren't selling. The nasty fact is that they don't deliver the goods. At this time, the personal computer industry doesn't really know how ordinary people need or want to use PCs in their business life. Until the industry recognizes that it must market to needs rather than market products, its growth rate will continue to disappoint.