A failure of imagination is killing the PC industry

Windows 8 and Ultrabooks show what's wrong with the Wintel approach to making creative computing devices

The PC industry has always been plagued by periodic shortages. Last year, there was a shortage of hard drives, caused by flooding in Asia. A few years back, there was a shortage of LCDs due to a lack of manufacturing capacity. Hard drive component plants were repaired, panel capacity expanded, end of story. But now, the industry faces another shortage, and this one won't be fixed so easily: It's a shortage of imagination.

It's no news that the rise of mobile products designed and manufactured by the likes of Apple and Samsung are eating away at PC sales. Computer makers, as well as Intel and Microsoft, knows this full well, and those companies are loaded with very smart people who can bring huge amounts of cash and other resources to bear. But so far, as they say in New York, they've come up with bupkis, nada, zip, nothing -- nothing of consequence, that is. Instead, the PC industry has come up with Windows 8 and the highly touted Ultrabook, neither of which users want and so are refusing to buy.

[ If you haven't used Windows 8 yet, here's why you won't want to. | Follow all the developments in business technology news and get a digest of the key stories each day in the InfoWorld Daily newsletter. ]

All you have to do to understand the depth of failure in the PC industry's imagination is to use a new PC running Windows 8. I spent the weekend trying out a loaner Lenovo X1 Carbon Touch Ultrabook. I really wanted to like it: It's light, fast, and fun to use. But because it's very pricey ($1,700) and runs Windows 8 and because the smart folks at Lenovo have yet to imagine what a modern business laptop could be, I can't recommend it.

If the Carbon is one of the best Windows 8 Ultrabooks that could be made, the PC industry is in more trouble than I thought. (Goldman Sachs, by the way, is so worried that it's telling investors to dump Hewlett-Packard stock, while Dell, in the throes of a contested leveraged buyout, is blaming its troubles on Windows 8.)

Every Windows 8 PC is a bad compromise on price or usability
In the age of BYOD, it's hard to imagine (there's that word again) many businesses will spend nearly $1,700 a pop to equip employees with the X1 Carbon. After all, the point of IT spending is to make employees as productive as possible, and for that amount of money, you could buy an iPad and a subsidized iPhone or Galaxy, yet still have almost enough left over to purchase a lower-end laptop. (I asked Lenovo to discuss this issue with me, but it did not respond.)

I concede that even among Windows 8 touch-enabled Ultrabooks, the Carbon's $1,700 price is extreme. PC makers can comply with Intel's Ultrabook standards and Microsoft's Windows 8 requirements without charging that much. The cheapest Windows 8 PCs equipped with a 13-inch or larger touchscreen sold at Best Buy start at about $650, but most cost between $800 and $1,200.

Nevertheless, Windows 8 creates a real dilemma for the PC maker: Ship a low-cost unit without a touchscreen, and the whole point of Windows 8 is lost. Ship it with a touchscreen, and you've added cost, weight, and a bit of bulk that has to be compensated for elsewhere in the box. What the PC makers have done is try to fudge the issue, delivering either very expensive laptops that end up competing with Apple's beloved yet pricey MacBook Air or cheaper PCs with compromises that confuse and turn off buyers.

For example, a check of Best Buy's offerings reveals 367 models of Windows 8 PCs for sale. Less than 25 percent of them have touchscreens. Think about that: Faced with the rapid adoption of touch-enabled tablets and smartphones, Microsoft took a huge leap of faith by building an OS that tried to straddle the conventions of the desktop and the tablet. But the PC makers are shipping mostly touchless PCs that offer all the confusing drawbacks of Windows 8 and none of the benefits.

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