An Irish Wake for the PC

by Andrew McAfee on August 17, 2011

A post to IBM’s Building a Smarter Planet blog by Mark Dean reminded me that the business PC just had its 30th birthday; the IBM Personal Computer was introduced on August 12, 1981. Many sharp observers realized at the time that this was a big deal. Time magazine (which was at the time an important part of American society)  declared the computer its “Machine of the Year” for 1982 and put a PC-ish machine on its cover.

The "Machine of the Year," 1982

These days, many sharp observers, including Dean himself and Ray Ozzie, realize that the PC Era is in its twilight. It was a great run. The PC forever changed how knowledge work is carried out; was instrumental in reinvigorating American industrial productivity; generated huge amounts of entrepreneurship, innovation, and wealth; and served as the initial access point to the Internet for most of us. In my opinion it’s changed the world more than any machine since the steam engine, which changed the world so much that it “made mockery of all that had gone before.”

So the PC has had a rich, full, accomplished life. And as Dean notes, it’ll probably have a long afterlife. A lot of us still have PCs at our desks and carry laptops when we travel, if for no other reason than because of the convenience of full-size keyboards and screens.

But the PC is now a legacy technology; the center of gravity in computing has moved on. To tablets and app phone and as Dean writes, “new ideas about the role that computing can play in progress. These days, it’s becoming clear that innovation flourishes best not on devices but in the social spaces between them, where people and ideas meet and interact. It is there that computing can have the most powerful impact on economy, society and people’s lives.”

His post points out that in 2004, the year before IBM sold its PC business to Lenovo, the company’s pre-tax income margin was 11.1%. Last year, it was 18.9%. These numbers highlight the deep silliness inherent in the argument that we can or should fight to maintain low-margin commodity hardware manufacturing activities in this country. Manufacturing a PC is no more closely tied to digital innovation these days than sewing a pair of socks is tied to fashion design.

The examples of IBM, Google, and Apple, to name just a few of America’s hugely successful, innovative, and profitable high tech companies that don’t make computers themselves, show how far off were the arguments made by Gary Pisano and Willy Shih in their 2009 HBR article “Restoring American Competitiveness.” Whatever competitiveness problems American high tech companies have (and when your high tech industry is the envy of the rest of the world, how grave can they really be?), they don’t have anything to do with the fact that we don’t make as much gear as we used to.

So instead of celebrating the PC’s birthday, I propose that we throw it an Irish wake — more a party than a funeral. Let’s gather around a PC, set out a good spread, and tell our favorite stories about it. What are yours? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.

  • Markus P. Weinberger

    During an internship at a plant of a very well known German car manufacturer I made my first computer experience in a business environment. That was in 1992.
    Everyday life at this company at that time was working on terminals connected to a mainframe machine. Then I came to a research department with some very smart PhD students and they had Windows PCs for some tasks.
    What was so astonishing to me? These PC owned and operated by a huge company with worldwide reputation for engineering excellence – these PC had the same blue screens as the PCs I knew from our private use at home. I could not believe it. 

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