For the past seven years, global demand for computers has steadily declined as consumers increasingly opt for mobility over desktops. But thanks to the growing popularity of voice-activated home assistants, this could all be about to change.
This week, the world’s biggest PC makers are out in force in Taipei at Computex 2018, showing off the latest possibilities the form factor still has to offer.
However, as exciting and as powerful as the latest Samsung, Asus, Acer and Lenovo PCs may seem, most consumers are more interested in what the next batch of flagship smartphones, set for reveal at IFA in Germany in September, will be able to do.
And that’s because the PC has ceased being the digital heart of the average home. The most recent Gartner data shows that over the first quarter of 2018, global shipments of computers totaled just 61.7 million units, while sales of desktops and notebooks have been falling year-over-year since 2012 – the moment when the smartphone really took hold.
In 2012, according to IDC data, 90 percent of computer owners globally used theirs daily for checking email and browsing the web and 66 percent for reading the news online. By 2015 just 53 percent were using a desktop or laptop to keep up with the news and 65 percent for email and Google searches.
As well as sales, the installed base has also dropped from 1.48 billion in 2015 to 1.36 billion active computers today. People aren’t bothering to spend money upgrading a desktop when they get a new pocket-size computer every 24 months as part of their smartphone contract.
Compare that with smartphone penetration and use. The GSMA says there are 5 billion active handsets in use and GlobalWebIndex research puts average use at 3.5 hours every day.
Looking at those figures, it would be easy to presume that the PC if not dead, is definitely on life support.
But wait. Before brands start turning their backs on the computer as a consumer-facing channel altogether, they should consider voice.
Vocal assistants have everyone talking. Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri each have over 500 million active users across smartphones, smartwatches and standalone smart speaker systems. Amazon has sold over 30 million Echo devices and Microsoft’s Cortana is baked into the Windows 10 operating system. This new form of interface is catching on faster than even the smartphone with analysts predicting a 75 percent penetration across U.S. households before the end of the decade.
“One of the reasons smart speakers with voice assistants are catching on so quickly is because they are inclusive,” explains Gordon White, General Manager TSC, Sitel Group’s Digital CX agency. “Anyone of any age from children to seniors can use them with the same ease. But the technology is nowhere near perfect, yet.”
And this is where the PC market could come back from the brink. At its I/O Developer Conference in May, Google admitted that voice alone is not enough for many requests and so it is launching what it calls a new device category, the Smart Display. It’s essentially a smart speaker with a screen for displaying content or video answers to how-to questions. But why buy yet another connected device that can just do one job, when you can use a computer for voice search with images, and so much more?
Microsoft has already seized on this possible pairing and at its developer conference, BUILD, demonstrated how its Windows 10 devices can now simultaneously support Amazon’s Alexa and its own Cortana voice assistants.
Likewise, this week Amazon introduced four reference design computers that will enable PC makers to create desktops and notebooks with Alexa baked in.
“We believe voice is the next major disruption in the PC category, which is an important part of our ‘Alexa Everywhere’ vision,” said Mariel van Tatenhove, principal business development lead on Amazon’s Alexa Voice Service team.
“The possibilities that voice offers are already making it a serious trajectory for innovation,” says Gordon White. “It’s shaping up to be a central foundation of a multi-device future, connecting or enhancing other things such as smart TVs and doorbells and now possibly even computers.”
Therefore, rather than the computer, it could well be the smartphone, in its traditional form factor that soon finds itself on life support as other, easier and more intuitive ways of staying informed, entertained and connected emerge.
“We are certainly on the verge of a paradigm shift, in terms of devices,” agrees White. “Interaction is the key – how friction free and rewarding the interface is to use. For example, older people who have taken to voice assistants say it’s because it allows them to avoid using the traditional graphical user interface that makes them feel uncomfortable.”
But whether the smartphone is usurped by smart speakers or whether Alexa gives the PC a fresh start, there will still be huge consequences for the relationship customers have with brands.
“It is going to pose a set of challenges far superior to anything we have experienced so far,” explains White. “But the rewards [in overcoming these challenges] are immense.”
To learn more about voice assistants and the opportunities they offer for brands to get closer to consumers, download the TSC’s white paper Voice: Speaking for your brand.