The Undead PC: Dell has the best PC sales in their history

It’s time to push back on the idea that the PC market is all but dead. Dell has had solid sales, customers have never been happier and relationships (with one noted exception) between OEMs, Intel and Microsoft are improving. We’ve come a long way in the last decade or so.

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Martyn Williams/IDG

[Disclosure: All of the vendors mentioned are clients of the author.]

I’m at Dell Technology Summit this week, and one of the interesting stats from Sam Bird, the impressive executive that heads Dell Technology’s personal systems unit, is that they’ve had the strongest sales year ever. Dell is only Number 3 in volume, but they are Number 1 with a bullet in revenue and profit.

This showcases that for companies that execute – including spending money on R&D and marketing – the PC business is as strong, or, in the case of Dell Technologies, stronger than it’s ever been.

Let’s face it: The PC’s old days kind of sucked

I started as the lead analyst in operating systems for Dataquest back in 1994 and rose with the launch of Windows 95. Back then, people didn’t build their own PCs, and I was one of the first to take a motherboard, processor, hard drive and memory and build what I wanted. Laptop performance was a bad joke, battery life was measured in minutes and a lightweight laptop weighed around 6 lbs. That first PC I built never was stable, took me around two months (part-time) to configure, and the motherboard was held in the case with tape and rubber furniture feet because the mounting holes in the motherboard didn’t match the holes in the case.

One of my almost career-ending experiences resulted from being loaned our CEO’s laptop (an HP) and discovering that attempting to load the Windows 95 beta on it bricked the offering so badly IT couldn’t recover it. (Granted, no one had told me until after the fact it was the CEO’s laptop, but still.) If you tried to run more than one application at the same time you were risking a crash, and you’d see a significant drop in performance (multi-core and multi-threaded application support was a concept, not a reality).

There was no wireless capability back then, and the available networking technology, to be kind, sucked…particularly if you had to connect from home. Configuring drivers was like playing Russian Roulette: sometimes they worked, but way too often they’d cause the system to crash, and you’d have to go into Safe mode to try get the system working again.

Nearly a decade later, my wife worked for Intel and was telling me that her coworkers were refusing new PCs because they didn’t want to spend weeks trying to get all of their applications working. We tended to bounce between versions of Windows that worked reasonably well (Windows XP and Windows 7) and those that truly stank (Windows NT, ME, Vista and Windows 8).

I’m surprised the PC market didn’t collapse due to the horrid experiences we were all having with the products, and we either didn’t move back to terminals or moved to Apple products, which almost consistently provided a far better experience.

It’s interesting to note that Dell’s success is largely the result of Dell doing a better job fixing their PCs, not doing a better job building PCs that didn’t need to be fixed. For instance, Sony built better-looking, more reliable and more feature-rich products, but their support was horrible. Dell focused on support instead, and that strategy allowed them to survive, while Sony’s PC business largely didn’t.

But that was then, and I’m often surprised how many people don’t realize we moved on.

PCs today

I’m using a new Dell Latitude laptop on this trip. It took me around two hours to fully configure it, but most of the work was automated (updates and email sync). Personal time doing this was under 30 minutes, and much of that time I was also multi-tasking (read: watching Netflix). The result is fully stable, the battery life is measured in hours and while this is one of the heaviest laptops I have it’s still only around 3 lbs. It’s vastly more secure, with Windows Hello easier to sign into, better connected and much better-looking than most the products that existed even a few years ago. And this laptop has eight virtual cores, so the laptop multi-tasks like a champ. You can even flip the screen around to the back and use it as a tablet but being a laptop-forward 2-in-1 design, most of us likely won’t do that.

Fully patched and updated Windows 10 is night and day different than earlier versions of the OS, even Windows 7, which was unusually popular. I haven’t had a driver problem cause a system failure in years. Occasionally driver updates don’t take, but they never crash the system, and the normal fix is to manually uninstall the old driver and attempt the update manually. The last time I had a blue screen problem was with a system I built myself, and the cause was a bad motherboard. And once I swapped it out, even that system stabilized almost immediately. In most cases, if I do have a problem the PC fixes itself.

Even Microsoft and Intel have changed

While there’s a lot of concern with OEMs about Microsoft’s Surface line, the fact is building hardware has made Microsoft better at working with hardware OEMs. They used to whine up a blue storm about Microsoft not listening, and now they are just pissed about Surface. They are pretty happy with Windows.

Intel was another nightmare that’s gone away. Instead of complaining about Intel on this latest trip, Dell praised the company as being the most responsive they’ve ever seen the firm be, and they even created a custom chip for the Microsoft Neo, something I’ve never seen them do before. The result is some really interesting prototypes like the Surface Neo that I’ll talk about come CES next year (they are super-secret).

The PC is doing just fine, thank you very much

Innovative desktop and laptop designs are again appearing in the market, the suppliers have lost their arrogance and are again focused on keeping the OEMs happy (well, with the exception of the Surface thing) and Dell’s customer experience numbers are indicating some of the strongest Net Promotor Scores in the industry (some of which match Apple’s).

The PC is not only far from dead, it is massively less annoying than it once was.

It’s great to see companies like Dell, Microsoft and Intel aggressively address the problems that likely led to the PC’s decline and showcase that, if you’re willing to invest in the PC market, it's still going to reward you handsomely. Nice to know.

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