Commoditization of PCs

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Over the last few decades, PCs have become an increasingly important part of our daily domestic and work lives. PCs are used for tasks ranging from rudimentary email and word processing to advanced computer programming. Commoditization, in the business world, is a process that transforms the market for a unique, branded product into a market based on undifferentiated price competition. Commoditization can be the desired outcome of an entity in the market, or it can be an unintentional outcome that no party actively sought to achieve. In the case of the PC, it seems that increased commoditization is the unintentional outcome of a fiercely competitive marketplace.

The current trend began in the 1990s, when the power of personal computers increased radically, blurring the formerly sharp distinction between personal computers and multi-user computers such as mainframes. PCs, although networked in the office, became the norm both at home and at work. Today, processing power, once the largest differentiator in price, is becoming less of a factor. Mobility, i.e. notebooks vs. desktops, has also traditionally been a large price differentiator, but the gap between notebook and desktop prices has narrowed. Lower prices, along with mobile wireless capabilities, helped notebook sales increase about 22% from 2005 to 2006, while desktop sales remained flat. PCs are moving towards commoditization as traditional price differentiators become marginalized and price itself become the main purchase differentiator.

Increased PC commoditization could hurt PC manufacturers, who are facing price pressure that could drive down their operating margins and profits. If PC manufacturers are negatively impacted by commoditization, then so will the hard drive, operating system, and microprocessor OEM's who supply products that are embedded in PCs. Those who should be optimistic about commoditization include PC hardware innovators (those not selling a commodity PC), and network technology focused OEMs who could see increased demand for their products as traditional PCs both become cheaper and less valuable to computing.


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Factors Influencing Commoditization?

As PCs are increasingly compelled to become as commoditized as the polymers they are enclosed in, there are a few primary PC market drivers to keep in mind.

Processing Power and the Lack of Differentiation

As Moore's Law predicted, computer processing power has increased at meteoric rates. As the power of microprocessors continues to increase, there are fewer and fewer business and consumer computing needs that cannot be met with off-the shelf commodity computers. At some point it seems logical that incremental increases in CPU power will not drastically affect the user experience, as it has in the past. Computers today are so powerful that we don’t need to upgrade them as often. If PCs largely have the same capabilities, then how will OEM's differentiate themselves? One answer is with lower prices - the decrease of which is driving commoditization. Another is the emergence of a new class of client device - mobile smartphones and tablets offer a new avenue of product differentiation to re-establish brand value and margins if the commodity software trap is avoided. As sales of commodity PCs plateau, these battery-powered mobile client devices are beginning a strong advance.

Emerging Market Sales

Many emerging economies have per capita incomes below $5,000, and therefore can only be significantly penetrated using low-cost, commodity machines. Emerging regions are helping to drive commoditization because they are accounting for the majority of new PC sales growth worldwide. Emerging markets accounted for half of PC sales and about 53% of worldwide PC growth in 2006, while the U.S. logged a modest 3.6% CAGR in the same year. For example, a Chinese manufacturer recently introduced a $203 PC to the market. PC market leaders may really have to stretch themselves to compete with such price competition.

Central Computing

The trend toward central computing and storage has led companies to look for more performance outside of desktops, with many adopting a thin client strategy. Some evidence of this trend is the increased adoption of blade servers and grid-computing technologies. Grid computing is an emerging model of distributed computing that employs a dynamic pool of dispersed commodity computer resources (often desktop computers) to tackle large, time-consuming tasks.


Companies Who Will Gain from PC Commoditization

Apple (AAPL) is a PC innovator that makes designs, experiences, and technology that are unique and differentiated and will have the opportunity to steal market share from commodity OEMs. Apple's iMac, which has a widely recognized design, could see demand surge as users search for alternatives. Between the third calendar quarter of 2005 and the third quarter of 2006, Apple's U.S. Mac unit shipments grew 31% from 744,000 units to 975,000 units. By the fourth quarter of 2011 that number had grown to 5.2 million Mac PCs sold. We may see more manufacturers take various computer hardware attributes and put them together in different ways, targeting them at specific industries. For example, some PC OEM's are creating specialized divisions to cater to the needs of health care, manufacturing, transportation, education, or life sciences in an effort to differentiate their offerings. Apple is taking a different course by embracing mobile client devices like iPad and iPhone that are strongly differentiated from PC clients and deliver high margins. For calendar 2012 sales of Apple's iPad tablet are reported as 40.7 million units, and for the last quarter of 2011 surpassing the PC unit sales of any single PC manufacturer at 15.4 million units.

RealNetworks (RNWK) and again Apple (AAPL) are digital media companies that may see gains as PCs become more and more inexpensive to purchase due to commoditization. Today, 70% of U.S. consumers--93% for ages 18-24--listen to music on their PCs. Here, Apple's iTunes and RealNetworks (RNWK) are in beneficiary positions. Other notable software categories to watch include computer security, and PC video games developers.

Cisco Systems (CSCO) and Sun Microsystems (SUNW) are network hardware providers that could benefit as enterprise computing becomes more centralized. Companies are paying less attention to PCs and more attention to network-centric technologies - servers, gateways, routers etc. Also, companies with finite IT budgets, as they spend less on PCs, may use a greater portion of their dollars on network infrastructure. This indicates a growing need for companies such as Electronic Data Systems (EDS), which provides third-party infrastructure services to clients who lack the requisite networks on their own. It is also important to note that some leading PC OEM's such as Dell (DELL) sell network infrastructure equipment in addition to PCs.

NVIDIA (NVDA) and ATI Technologies (a subsidiary of Advanced Micro Devices (AMD)) are two leading graphic card makers that may see demand increase with commoditization. As PC OEM's look to differentiate themselves, many are shipping graphic cards as standard hardware in new PCs - instead of offering them as costly upgrades as was previously the case. NVIDIA and ATI are the two leading players in the high-end graphics market. NVIDIA has diversified their offering to include mobile system-on-a-chip platforms such as "Tegra" and found some success on the new tablet client devices.

Red Hat (RHT) and other open source companies that have figured out a way to make a profit from the commoditization of both hardware and software will stand a good chance of doing quite well.

Samsung, Acer and Asustek (2357-TW) are representative of some companies who have found success straddling both the legacy commoditized PC and the new profitable mobile client domains. They accomplish this through the use of the Android operating system which can be customized and branded to provide an experience that's thoroughly controlled by the OEM to provide differentiation, and yet includes commonalities that provide a rich ecosystem of developers and applications across all OEMs. This allows them to have a client offerring that is both uniquely theirs and not threateningly proprietary. Traditionally non-PC players are now beginning to engage in this space, including Motorola Mobility Holdings, Inc. (MMI), HTC and LG Display (LPL).

Companies Who Will Suffer from PC Commoditization

PC manufacturers such as Dell (DELL) and Hewlett-Packard Company (HPQ) have the most to lose from commoditization. If prices continue to plummet, OEM's will face increased pressure to differentiate their products to increase prices - or suffer as a result of the financial stress on margins. Dell (DELL), until recently a prominent cost leader in the PC market, is rapidly losing its lowest-cost position. In 2006, Dell cut its prices in an effort to maintain its 19.2% market share. However, this move also cut profit margins by more than half, from 8.7 to 4.3%. Hewlett-Packard Company (HPQ) has differentiated itself from competitors by making a push into the less commoditized notebook side of the business, where it is currently the market share leader. HP has also refocused around its imaging and printing group, which is the company's most profitable division. Many PC OEMs are mitigating the effects of PC commoditization by venturing into new technology areas, such as hand held computers, high-definition TV's, servers, storage hardware, etc. Those who are able to protect their margins while clearly differentiating themselves in the marketplace will have limited negative exposure to commoditization. Others, such as Acer (ACID), which has set up a subsidiary in India called Acer India, could put itself in an enviable position by successfully penetrating large emerging markets before its competitors.


Intel (INTC) and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) are microprocessor OEMs that may suffer as margins for PCs decrease and PC OEMs will likely continue to put pressure on microprocessor to reduce prices. If chip prices are reduced, these companies will have lower revenues, operating margins, and profits. On the other hand, Intel (INTC) and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) have very few close substitutes to the computer processors they manufacture, with the two firms together control about 90% of the current PC processor market. Time will tell if microprocessor OEM's have enough leverage over PC OEM's to hold their price points.


Microsoft (MSFT) is the operating systems leader, with a 90% market share of the OS market and could find itself in a tight position. PC OEMs are likely to put pressure on MSFT to reduce the price of their ubiquitous OS, the cost of which currently makes up 25% of the total price of a low-end PC. If Microsoft does not comply, PC OEM's could start shipping machines with free Linux-based open source operating systems. It is important to reiterate that most of the growth in the PC market is coming from emerging countries, where pirated software can be as high as 90% of all installed software. As a result, Microsoft rarely makes any money in these markets. However, Microsoft has been able to utilize the strategy of SKU differentiation in order to maintain relatively high margins. By enabling different sets of features on their "Starter", "Basic", "Home Premium", and "Ultimate" operating systems, they are able to sell extra features at a premium to users who can afford them, while still offering low-cost solutions to those who cannot.

Seagate (STX) and Western Digital (WDC) are the two largest standalone hard disk manufacturers in the world and they may be pressured by PC OEM's to reduce their prices. Seagate, which as of August 2005 had 31% of the HHD market, has maintained around a 43% market share of the high-end PC market. The world’s second largest HDD maker Western Digital, with a market share of 18.5%, ships a majority of its HDDs to be embedded in low to mid level desktop computers, leaving it very exposed. On the flip side, if a majority of PC users who spurn buying new PCs instead decide to upgrade existing machine hard drives, these firms could mitigate their exposure.

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