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Steve Ballmer's iPad point: Not affordable for all

Microsoft CEO says this week that "general purpose" PCs will always be popular because specialized devices like the iPad are redundant and not affordable for everyone. Is he right?

Defending the personal computer at the D: All Things Digital conference this week, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said "general purpose" PCs will continue to thrive because specialized devices like the iPad may be redundant and not necessarily affordable. Is he right?

Steve Ballmer: 'I don't think the whole world is going to be able to afford five devices per person.' Credit: Ina Fried/CNET

Responding to a question about the iPad and whether it's a PC, Ballmer addressed the affordability factor of the iPad and specialized devices: "The real question is, what's a PC? Nothing that people do on a PC today is going to get less relevant tomorrow. There are usage cases. Whether those are done today on PCs--or alternate devices. (And the latter) are going to grow in popularity. There's no question about that. Particularly entertainment-oriented scenarios. (But) there will exist a general-purpose device that does everything you want because I don't think the whole world is going to be able to afford five devices per person."

Ballmer makes a good point. The iPad is redundant for many people--since pretty much everything you can do on an iPad can be done on a laptop (broadly speaking). But the converse is not true. The iPad is a specialized device that does some things very elegantly (e.g., e-reading) and other things not at all (like running Adobe Flash or demanding productivity apps). And Ballmer crystallized this critique of the iPad when he took a swipe at its utility. "A guy tried to take notes on one in a meeting with me yesterday. That was fun. The meeting didn't go real fast," he said.

That said, the challenge for Microsoft is to find growth markets outside of traditional PC designs. Here, Apple is taking the lead. Thus, all the attention heaped on Apple and its CEO Steve Jobs.

And it's probably safe to say that Apple is forcing both Microsoft and Intel to move more quickly on next-generation PC design than they may have done otherwise. In a follow-up question about the iPad and tablets, Ballmer addressed how PCs are shape-shifting and how the underlying chips are changing: "I think PCs are going to continue to shift in form factor. PCs will look different. Next year. The year after that. The underlying semiconductor infrastructure that Windows runs on. The world's moving to system-on-a-chip," he said.

What he didn't say specifically is that Apple has already moved to system-on-a-chip designs across all of its most popular devices: the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Intel--Microsoft's longtime partner--on the other hand, only recently began shipping its "Moorestown" Z6 Atom system-on-a-chip but that's not expected to be very competitive until the next version.

So, the question for Microsoft (and Intel) might be, what will the next-generation general-purpose PC look like? A hybrid tablet-laptop? A more powerful, sleeker laptop with a touch interface? We'll know by next year.