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Declining sales are an opportunity for the PC industry

The PC industry is bracing itself for a tough year. But Don Reisinger thinks it should consider 2009 an opportunity instead of a year to be feared.

The PC business is in trouble, but that's OK!

2009 is shaping up to be a tough year for the PC industry. According to a forecast update to IDC's Worldwide Quarterly PC Tracker, PC shipments are expected to decline sharply over the first two quarters this year.

I consider this period, one marked with declining profit margins and plummeting sales, which would be a death knell for some industries, an opportunity for this one. It is just what PC manufacturers need to get them to jump-start their research and development divisions, to find new ways to sell computers.

Perhaps this isn't the end, but rather the beginning of a new era in the PC business, where manufacturers pay more attention to consumer desire and provide them with more of the things they actually want. I hope so, anyway. And if it comes to pass, here's what I'm looking for:

Better post-sale customer service
Sorry, Dell, but I don't believe that I should be forced to pay extra for U.S.-based customer support agents. I understand they're more expensive and I know Apple does it in its own way too, but that doesn't make it right.

In business, there are two simple ways to appeal to consumers: differentiate on price or differentiate on product. Since Dell can't differentiate on price thanks to low profit margins, U.S-based customer service at no additional cost would be an outstanding way to stand out and show customers that Dell has the most convenient service in the world. In these desperate times, it's worth classifying U.S.-based customer service as an investment instead of an expense.

But it's not just Dell. I wish all these companies would do more to improve their post-sale customer service. There's absolutely no reason why I should be forced to wait on-hold for hours trying to solve a simple problem and no, "inserting the recovery disc" is not a viable solution. In my experience, customer support has worsened over the past few years and now that sales are declining, maybe it can be the first place where these companies try to coax more people to buy their products. After all, if you knew you would enjoy a better post-sale experience with HP, wouldn't that make you more likely to buy one of its computers? It certainly would help sway my decision.

New designs, please
I'm generally unimpressed with the design of notebooks and desktops from the major PC manufacturers. Although they've tried in recent years to improve upon that, I'm still convinced that they're not doing enough to create stylish computers.

Why do I want a stylish computer? Because carrying around a black brick isn't all that appealing to me (for those for whom it is, there's always Lenovo). When I'm sitting at Starbucks or hanging out at a tech show, my laptop becomes an extension of who I am. If I don't want to wear that ugly pink shirt with horizontal stripes, what makes you think I really want to use that ugly HP notebook?

This is where Apple has it right. Its devices are elegant, yet functional. Take a look at the recent releases from HP, Dell, and especially Acer and tell me if any of those companies can compete on design. I certainly don't think so.

Experiment with touch screens
I know the viability of touch-screen PCs has been hotly debated between those who say they're not useful for computing and those who think they are, but with PC sales declining, I really wish the major manufacturers would try out more touch-screen PCs.

HP's current TouchSmart PCs are pretty good. The touch capabilities don't always come in handy, they don't detract from the experience in any way. Granted, if I really need to get real work done, I wouldn't use the touch screen at all, but the value of including such a feature in a PC goes back to the idea of differentiating products to appeal to consumers. And in an environment where traditional PCs won't be selling nearly as well, what would it hurt for a company like Dell to jump into the touch-screen market?

Maybe it's just me, but I enjoy touch-screen computers and I wish there were more of them. When things are going well, I'd probably say that these companies shouldn't try to fix something that isn't broken. But since things aren't going well, it's time to try something new and excite consumers. Touch-screens might be just that feature.

More customization, please
Over the past five years or so, PC manufacturers have been doing a better job of letting us customize our machines. But I think more needs to be done. I don't want to just pick a processor and GPU, I want to be able to pick the design of the case, and choose every last component in that computer. I wish HP, Dell, and the others would let me build my own PC from scratch.

I realize that Dell does an especially fine job of allowing us to customize PCs, but it can do more. I think there is a rather large group of consumers that really do wish they could customize every last component in their PCs. The mainstream vendors don't give them the option.

And since things aren't going well for the PC industry, wouldn't this be a great opportunity for one of the companies to show that they're willing to go the extra mile to get my business? Maybe I don't want that Intel processor or perhaps the notebook's design is just too ugly for my liking. I want to be able to change every last bit of it. I don't think that's asking too much.

Now, for the reality

Are some of my ideas pie-in-the-sky? Probably. But with PC manufacturers experiencing such a severe decline in sales, I think they need to do something, and I want them to do exactly what I outlined above.

It might never happen. HP, Dell, and the rest might trudge through this next year anxiously awaiting better times, but I truly believe that this year is an opportunity for these companies and they shouldn't miss it. They can change their focus, appeal to consumer desire, and come out of this recession on top.

It all starts with a willingness to innovate.

Check out Don's Digital Home podcast, Twitter stream, and FriendFeed.