What is a PC?

Posted: 01.28.11

The debate continues among suppliers, analysts, pundits, and web forum participants as to whether tablets (specifically the Apple iPad) should be counted as a PC or not. From our perspective the issue is defined (if it can be) by the processor.

Fragmentation is finally affecting the PC market. Options such as tablets, E-books, consoles, and even talented phones are doing jobs PCs could do. Also, consoles and Kindles. These other devices are not replacing PCs, but they're shifting interest and mind share. They're enabling people to leave devices at home for vacation and short trips. No more lugging a computer to a tradeshow. And a side-effect is that these alternative devices are reducing the urgency to upgrade machines. The money might be spent on new devices instead.

But for a market analysis we need a tighter definition – what is, and what isn’t a PC?

Is the differentiator the OS and applications?

No. If you restrict your definition of a “PC” to being one that is uses a specific operating system such as Microsoft Windows and DirectX then devices running Linux (and its Android variations) and Apple’s implementation (OS X) with Open GL or iOS with Open GL ES are disqualified so that won’t work because clearly a Mac is a PC.

If you expand the definition of a PC to any device that uses a graphics API, then Smart phones and tablets that use graphics APIs would qualify but E-books which don’t use a graphics API would be excluded from the count – even though they display images.

If you restrict the definition to the ability to run certain applications like office productivity applications (word-processing, spreadsheets, etc) then E-books are excluded (for now, that Nook is getting smarter and smarter) but Smart phones aren’t. However, point of sale devices (for example) and other embedded systems use a GPU or IGP, and don’t run office applications, yet they get counted as PCs.

So software can’t be the defining issue for what is or isn’t a PC.

The broadest public definition of a PC is: A small digital computer based on a microprocessor and designed to be used by one person at a time. The definition gets expanded by some to: Personal computers have their own operating systems, software, and peripherals, and can generally be linked to networks. Notice, display characteristics don’t get mentioned.

And there is a hardware definition: In general, it applies to any personal computer based on an Intel microprocessor, or on an Intel-compatible microprocessor. That definition would of course include Intel x86 Atom processors and AMD Fusion processors which of course will be found in tablets and maybe Smart phones. It also conveniently includes Apple computers, and nicely excludes ARM, MIPS, and IBM processors (so no game consoles will be included as a PC.)

Contrarian POV
The market research firm Canalys includes tablets as PCs. Canalys Senior Analyst Daryl Chiam said, “Any argument that an pad is not a PC is simply out of sync. With screen sizes of seven inches or above, ample processing power, and a growing number of applications, pads offer a computing experience comparable to netbooks. They compete for the same customers and will happily coexist. As with smart phones, some users will require a physical keyboard, while others will do without.”

That nicely side-steps the technological definitions and excludes Smart phones through screen size.

JPR’s position
We will use the hardware definition and constrain (for the time being) the meaning of a PC to be a device with an x86 CISC processor. That will include tablets that use x86. Also we won’t make screen size a distinction, but will us a graphics API distinction.

Why this is defendable – for now
Software – If I want to run a specific application, such as a PC-based FPS I can only do it on an x86 machine. However, soon it will be possible to use a light-weight non-x86 based client and run such a game from the web. You can kind of do that now with a light-weight x86 machine.

Kathleen Maher suggests this is like a Turing test. When I can run any application I want on a PC or other device and it's totally file compatible, and function compatible, how do I know (or care) what the hardware is?

As Microsoft ports Windows to ARM, and someday other RISC processors, and if Direct X is part of it, then it is conceivable to think that there will be sufficient processing power for all sorts of emulations which will allow me to run my favorite applications on any machine.

I don’t doubt that day is coming. I can’t predict exactly when – maybe three, five, worst case ten years. Till then we will use our admittedly constrained definition of what qualifies as a PC.

Tablets impact on graphics shipments
Now that our Q4 2010 quarterly report has been released, which showed disappointing results: Quarter-to-quarter down 2.6%, year quarter-to-year quarter down 7.7%, we are asked if tablets are impacting graphics sales? Possibly. We don’t think tablets are cannibalizing PC sales in that people are buying tablets as an alternative to a PC. But we do think that some people have bought tablets and postponed their PC upgrade or new system, and so in that sense tablets are impacting graphics sales.