Getting ready for Christmas and waiting for Godot

Posted: 10.01.13

What we thought of as the personal computer industry is becoming something entirely new. It is fragmenting into billions of devices: phones, tablets, game consoles, car systems, and we’re already seeing the next round of fragmentation emerging as the Internet of toasters, and ther-mostats, and other things, like robots, cars, boats, and wristwatches. 

What’s obvious, but what we forget, is that the companies that have been ruling the eletronic world are changing, too. They are trying to reformat and rejigger—sometimes it’s an orderly pro-cess, but usually it’s barely controlled hysteria.

And when it comes to barely controlled hysteria, the king is Steve Ballmer, who is leaving Microsoft because his board finally admitted to a lack of confidence and encouraged his retirement. The guy had plenty of detractors, but he was never boring, always passionate, and often right. It’s going to be hard to imagine a Microsoft without him.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen a new regime take over at Intel. In contrast with the buttoned-up Paul Otellini, the new bunch seems all about flexibility, mobility, and humanity. On the last day of Intel’s Developer Conference, the company had its anthropologist-in-chief Genevieve Bell talk about how the concept of mobility and the interconnectedness of people are changing our world. In the past, Intel’s technology geeks played cleanup at the IDF conferences. In the last few years it has been Justin Rattner, but as he turned the magical age of 65, he announced his retirement in accordance with Intel’s rules. Rattner and Bell have both explored the idea of 7 billion connected futures. Bell sees a great, diffuse evolution of ideas and people, and Intel in general seems to be trying to prepare itself for a future in which one monolithic architecture is not going to be suitable for 7 billion different use cases. 

Microsoft is trying to figure similar stuff out. How does a company that has failed repeatedly to create a mobile phone business on the scale of its desktop and server business reboot to survive and thrive in a mobile world?

So while we’re at it, let’s talk about Electronic Arts, which has veered from enthusiasm to enthusiasm. It too wants to love the mobile world, but it sure would like to make the same money it has made in the past creating games for desktops and consoles.

Apple? Oh heck, forget Apple—even when they do things wrong it all works out okay.

Coming soon …. the holidays

This quarter, the companies have revealed their plans for the lead-up to Christmas and beyond. Intel is all about tablets and specifically 2-in-1 tablets. Intel is in the enviable position of being able to go with whatever operating system its public wants. Little fat Android mascots are dancing around in the heads of Intel executives. That’s not something most of us would enjoy.

Microsoft is also committed to tablets, and we just bet the execs are holding their breath and hoping the Windows 8 haters run out of steam. Certainly they seem quieter. Windows should have had a slam dunk with their tablets—the ability to do real work on full Office apps and also party with typical tablet apps, but these things never do work out quite as well in real life as they do on paper. And I can explain this to you, Mr. and Ms. Mogul Executives. When the Windows tablets are being tablets they’re not as good as Apple tablets. They don’t have the right apps. They don’t connect as well with other devices. They’re not as fun. Work on that, would ya? Oh, and just in case you were thinking about asking, no, I do not think I would like to be CEO of Microsoft.

And meanwhile Google, the one-ton tomato, the potential big spoiler, has announced plans to extend life, a project championed by Larry Page. That’s cool Larry, and those of us who are aging more rapidly than we had scheduled are rooting for you, but what about that Google Glass thing? Will it suddenly make all those tablets seem outdated?

Stay tuned; these questions are going to evolve, and sometimes answers arrive on Christmas just like reindeer.