Sunday, June 6, 2010

Ballmer Sees Growth for PCs

The Wall Street Journal

Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Steve Ballmer on Thursday sought to strongly counter the idea, echoed all week at the Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital technology conference, that the era of PCs is waning.

"I think people are going to be using PCs in greater and greater numbers for many years to come," said the chief of the company with the most to lose.

Mr. Ballmer spoke after other tech luminaries had spent two days largely declaring PCs to be passé. Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs on Tuesday made an unflattering comparison between PCs and trucks, vehicles that dominated the auto market but which gave way to smaller cars as the country grew more urban.

Mr. Jobs said computers, including Apple's own Macintosh, won't go away, just as trucks didn't disappear. But he suggested that sleeker portable products such as his company's iPhone and iPad would be the equivalent of cars—offering touchscreen Website browsing, droves of applications and other features not found on PCs that run Microsoft Windows.

Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of the Hollywood animation studio DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., said he has abandoned a laptop for an iPad and smartphone. "The laptop is yesterday's news," he said.

Of course, world-wide PC shipments this year are projected to jump 22% from a year ago to 376.6 million units and spending to rise 12% to $245.4 billion, according to market researcher Gartner Inc.

Microsoft says it has sold more than 100 million licenses for Windows 7 since the software came out in October, making it the company's fastest-selling PC operating system. In contrast, Gartner estimates that Apple and other makers of tablet devices will ship only about 10 million of the gadgets this year.

Executives at Intel Corp. argue the rise of portable computers has reinvigorated PC sales. Instead of one desktop a household, there can now be one portable computer for each person in a home. The chip giant says netbooks--the small, low-priced relative of laptop computers--have sold more quickly in the past two years than the iPhone, iPod or other recent high-tech products.

Nor do Apple products dominate their markets. The Macintosh accounted for less than 4% of global PC sales in 2009, while its share of smartphone operating system stood at 14.4%, in third place in a market led by Nokia Corp., with 46.9%, Gartner said.

Still, Apple's success outside of PCs has been eye-opening, particularly its claim of selling two million iPads in its first 60 days. When the company's market capitalization passed Microsoft's last week—making Apple the most valuable technology company—the change bolstered the idea of the post-PC era.

The debate partly stems from semantics, since Mr. Ballmer and some other industry executives regards tablet devices like the iPad as simply a new form of PC. He predicted future tablets that use Microsoft's Windows will be competitive with the iPad, though he conceded the company has a "lot of work to do" to "optimize" its operating system to run on those devices. "The race is on," Mr. Ballmer said.

Esther Dyson, a technology industry investor, said Messrs. Jobs and Ballmer are "really arguing over nothing" since both recognize that new devices play increasingly important roles. "It doesn't matter what you call it, things are changing," she said.

Microsoft also faces growing competition from Google Inc. in the tablet category, with longtime Microsoft hardware partners such as Dell Inc. planning to use Google's Android operating system on forthcoming tablet devices. Mr. Ballmer compared its partners' use of Android to their past efforts to put Linux on the cheap laptops known as netbooks, which didn't sell well.

In mobile phones, Mr. Ballmer said Microsoft has learned the "value of excellent execution" through past missteps in the business. Microsoft makes an operating system for handsets, called Windows Phone, that has fallen behind technology and market share of Apple's iPhone, Google's Android and other devices. Microsoft, which accounts for 94% of discount PCs operating systems, is No. 4 in smartphone operating systems, with 8.7% of the market, the research firm says.

But Mr. Ballmer said there are frequent shifts in market leadership in the mobile business, which he views as an opportunity for Microsoft to regain share in the category when the company comes out with an improved version of its mobile software, Windows Phone 7, by the holidays.