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Requiem for a Motherboard

Intel begins to divert resources from its desktop motherboard division.
January 23, 2013

Intel will begin “slowly ramping down” its desktop motherboard business, the company disclosed to journalists today. Intel’s doubling down on lightweight computing in the form of ultrabooks, phones, and tablets–meaning the PC tower you’re familiar with may be something you’re soon to be slightly less familiar with.

“The internal talent and experience of twenty years in the boards business…is being redistributed to address emerging new form factors,” said Intel, per CNET’s Brooke Crothers.

Of course, this should come as no surprise, on some level. Mobile computing is a rocket ship, and it makes sense for Intel to step more fully aboard. PC sales were reported to be turning a corner in 2012, declining for the first full year since 2001. In 2010, smartphones began outselling “old-fashioned” computers. Some have seen Windows 8 as a potential knight in shining armor to prop up the PC business, but to most onlookers, the writing’s clearly on the wall: mobile is ascendant, and desktop can’t help but suffer.

Suffering isn’t the same thing as dead, of course, and Crothers points out that erstwhile Intel competitors Asus and Gigabyte “are expected to continue to participate in the market.” Gamers in particular will be wanting high-performance desktop motherboards for the foreseeable future. And even Intel will keep an eye on so-called “emerging” desktop designs (though many of these share DNA with mobile computing): take the Intel NUC board, for instance.

Still, what does it mean when tech companies that used to invest resources in desktop computing now reroute those resources to mobile computing?

If I were a (slightly) more bombastic writer, I might have titled this post something a little more over-the-top Fukuyaman, like “The End of Computing.” That would be excessive, but what I think is true is that the mobile computing revolution is steering us from a world in which most of us were working on computers that had more than enough processing power, towards a world in which most of us work on computers that have perhaps slightly less than enough. With the premium tech companies (and markets) have placed on lightness, mobility, pleasing form factors, and user-friendly design to lure the masses, we are buying simpler computers and updating them more frequently (I’ve bought or been given four iOS devices through a single life cycle of my MacBook). Our tastes are changing, and we seem to think of computing devices the way we think of children’s shoes: leave a little room to grow, and be ready to replace in the not-too-distant future.

There are certainly a lot of grumbling commentators at the end of Crothers’s post who see this as something of the end of an era. “Even geeks are upgrading towers less often,” says one, with a tad of an “et tu, Brute“ tone. If its market shrinks, and its prices rise, the desktop motherboard, and heavy-duty computing as a whole, might begin to feel like more and more of a luxury product, potentially causing that market to contract even further. A time may come when a large desktop computer is either a status symbol or the proud badge of the hardcore hobbyist–much as it was in the dawn of personal computing.

What do you think? Are conventional computers on the way out? Are they an increasingly niche product, and what does that mean for the future of computing?

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