Economist Debate: Are We in a Post-PC Era?

Are we now in a post-PC world? That question is the focus of the latest Economist debate. In The Economist debates, proposer and opposition each consist of a single speaker, experts in the issue at hand, a moderator, and plenty of comments from the floor to add to the mix. Given the importance of this debate, we decided to sum up the arguments of the ongoing debate here.

"Is the centre of gravity in the computing world shifting away from the personal computer (PC)? That is the issue that lies at the heart of the motion we will be debating in the days ahead. The topic continues to generate plenty of heated discussion within the technology industry and it has important repercussions for the world beyond it." These are the moderator's opening remarks on October 25th.

Let's see what the experts have to say.

The Proposer: End of an Era -- Argued by Wes Wasson, senior vice-president and chief marketing officer, Citrix

Opening Statement: "At the dawn of the PC Era, Steve Jobs described the personal computer as "a bicycle for the mind." If the personal computer was a bicycle, the personal cloud is a magic carpet."

While we clearly believe the industry is moving from a PC-centric era to a cloud-centric era, trying to make the case that the PC is in decline misses the point. Personal computers are not going away -- they are just becoming part of something much bigger. Something that parallels the transformation the PC itself ushered in 30 years ago.

The real thing they got wrong, in my view, was the religious conviction that any single "best device" would dominate computing. The exact opposite has happened. Diversity has exploded. IT and employees alike have an amazing array of choices today. As devices got thinner, lighter and cheaper, people did not switch -- they bought more. Two or three years ago, the average corporate employee used only one PC for 90% of their work; today, they use an average of three different devices for work every day, many of which are their own personal consumer devices.

While the notion that the PC is dying is wildly overstated, the fact that its relevance is changing is indisputable. For most of the past 20 years, the PC was the centre of our digital universe. Everything we did in computing as users revolved around a PC. It was where our data were stored. It defined what apps we ran and how we used them. In many instances, it also defined where we worked. As we look around us today, it is hard to argue that the PC will continue to hold that same level of universal centrality going forward. There are simply too many choices. Technology innovations have opened a floodgate of options, and a new generation of users "born digital" is unlikely to feel the same allegiance to any single form factor.

I don't believe that vision is a threat to companies like Microsoft. In fact, they are at the forefront of many of the innovations making the cloud era possible ... It is a threat only to vendors who stubbornly cling to a single form factor as the centre of the computing world, and try to restrict and limit user choice.

Closing Statement: "We are witnessing the early stages of a shift in eras that will ultimately prove to be just as significant as the one that ushered in the PC era more than 30 years ago."

The Opposition: Still in It -- Argued by Frank X. Shaw, corporate vice-president, Corporate Communications, Microsoft

Opening Statement: "This is not the post-PC era. It is the PC-plus era in which a world of devices (including lots of PCs), connected via "fat pipes" to cloud Internet services, are delivering amazing new experiences."

Smartphones may be capturing some of the time we used to spend on our PCs communicating and collaborating. iPads and other tablet-like devices may be preferred for certain forms of content consumption, but when we need to be productive, when we need to create value, when we need to crunch numbers, create a sales pitch, edit a movie or develop a new script, we still turn to our tool of choice -- the PC.

I don't think it is too much of a stretch to suggest that the vast majority of content consumed on a tablet, phone or set-top box was created or edited on a PC. There are whole categories of work -- architecture, industrial design, finance, scientific discovery, mapping, government -- where there is no potential of doing work in a true post-PC era.

Things become "post" for two reasons only. Either they freeze in place and are replaced, or the purpose for which they exist ceases to be meaningful. The PC on which I type this essay is so clearly different from (and better than) the PC of even two years ago ... that the idea that the PC is frozen in place or not evolving at warp speed is ludicrous. And the needs and purpose that drove the PC in the first place? We create, we consume, we communicate, we collaborate, we are productive and we are assisted in all these endeavours by, yes, our PCs. When we enter the "post-human" era, I'll buy the argument on post-PC.

Comment from the floor by Stuart Lambert: "I produce music. This requires huge amounts of processing power and screen real estate that no tablet would ever offer. Consider the millions of amateur and pro music producers in the world, let alone video editors, photographers, animators, CAD designers, etc., most of whom will ridicule the notion that the PC is dead."

Closing Statement: "How can we be in a "post-PC era" when there will be 500m PCs sold per year, and 2 billion PCs in use around the world, in 2015?"

Investing ideas
Here a few prominent PC stocks, all major players in the future of the PC and cloud computing. Do you think these names are prepared for whatever lies ahead?

Use this data as a starting-off point for your own analysis. List sorted alphabetically. (Click here to access free, interactive tools to analyze these ideas.)

1. Dell (NAS: DELL) : Market cap of $27.60B. Provides integrated technology solutions in the information technology (IT) industry worldwide. Share price as of 11/02 at $15.

2. Hewlett-Packard (NYS: HPQ) : Market cap of $50.95B. Offers various products, technologies, software, solutions, and services to individual consumers and small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), as well as to the government, health, and education sectors worldwide. Share price as of 11/02 at $25.88. Might be undervalued at current levels, with a PEG ratio at 0.79, and P/FCF ratio at 6.2. The stock has had a good month, gaining 15.5%.

3. Intel (NAS: INTC) : Market cap of $125.50B. Engages in the design, manufacture, and sale of integrated circuits for computing and communications industries worldwide. Share price as of 11/02 at $23.82. Offers a good dividend, and appears to have good liquidity to back it up--dividend yield at 3.51%, current ratio at 2.24, and quick ratio at 1.91. The stock has had a good month, gaining 15.91%.

4. Marvell Technology (NAS: MRVL) : Market cap of $8.19B. Designs, develops, and markets analog, mixed-signal, digital signal processing, and embedded and stand-alone ARM-based microprocessor integrated circuits. Share price as of 11/02 at $13.57. Might be undervalued at current levels, with a PEG ratio at 0.65, and P/FCF ratio at 8.68. The stock has lost 31.13% over the last year.

5. NVIDIA (NAS: NVDA) : Market cap of $8.49B. Provides visual computing, high performance computing, and mobile computing solutions that generate interactive graphics on various devices ranging from tablets and smart phones to notebooks and workstations. Share price as of 11/02 at $13.77. The stock has had a good month, gaining 19.05%.

6. Seagate Technology (NYS: STX) : Market cap of $6.82B. Designs, manufactures, markets, and sells hard disk drives for the enterprise, client compute, and client non-compute market applications in the United States and internationally. Share price as of 11/02 at $16.84. This is a risky stock that is significantly more volatile than the overall market (beta = 2.21). Offers a good dividend, and appears to have good liquidity to back it up--dividend yield at 4.43%, current ratio at 1.97, and quick ratio at 1.7. The stock has had a good month, gaining 71.23%.

7. Western Digital (NYS: WDC) : Market cap of $6.19B. Engages in the design, development, manufacture, and sale of hard drives worldwide. Share price as of 11/02 at $27.31. The stock has lost 19.72% over the last year.

Interactive Chart: Press Play to compare changes in analyst ratings over the last two years for the stocks mentioned above. Analyst ratings sourced from Zacks Investment Research.

Kapitall's Rebecca Lipman own shares in DELL. Data sourced from Finviz.

At the time thisarticle was published The Motley Fool owns shares of Western Digital, Intel, and Marvell Technology Group. The Fool owns shares of and has bought calls on Intel. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Dell, NVIDIA, and Intel. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Intel. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended writing puts in NVIDIA. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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