No room for Always Connected PC in our computing quiver

With much fanfare, Qualcomm and Microsoft present the first Always Connected PCs. But though the platform has come in like a lion, at least one industry analyst expects it will go out like a lamb.

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Mark Hachman / IDG

I’ve said for decades that equilibrium for personal devices is two: one in the pocket and one in the bag. When a third device crops up, it is an outgrowth of shortcomings of one or both devices already in our pockets and bags. I said it when PDAs scared PC and phone makers in the ‘90s. I said it again when handheld GPS devices emerged. Yet again, when tablets rocked the PC market.

So, is that what’s happening now with the new Always Connected PC, or ACPC, which Qualcomm and Microsoft unveiled this month? The two tech giants think so. They contend the platform, built around Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors and a lite version of Windows, addresses two deficiencies in x86 laptops: all-day battery life and pervasive connectivity via LTE.

The cellular argument doesn’t pass the sniff test. Dell, HP, Lenovo and others already bundle LTE in some 2-in-1s – and I expect them to do more of that, which should be appealing to IT as a more productive and secure alternative to the myriad stranger-danger Wi-Fi connections out there in the wild.

But I do buy the all-day computing argument – sort of. No question, PC OEMs could use a swift kick in the pants on battery life. But is the issue severe enough to throw the market into disequilibrium? Alternatively, is the ACPC good enough to replace the device that’s already in your bag?

The answer is no, on both accounts. We all want better battery life out of our PCs. But to be honest, if I was going to add a third device, I’d opt for a second full-fledged PC, not an ACPC. Indeed, the ACPC doesn’t create a compelling new experience from the PC’s shortcoming to convince many of us to create space for it as the third device in our quiver. And because it’s a performance-compromised PC alternative – for a full-on Windows price – the new platform isn’t going to convince any of us to replace our laptops.

If the ACPC had arrived on the scene five years ago, this story might be different. The PC industry was not ready for the iPad when it began shipping in 2010. Computers at the time were designed to handle computationally-intensive workloads, but without much regard for responsiveness. The iPad – and, soon after, Android alternatives – passed on the heavy lifting, focusing instead on immediately serving up lighter tasks like browsing, reading and light gaming.

The first response from the PC market came two years later, with Windows RT. Designed for ARM processors like Qualcomm’s smartphone chips, RT, a stillborn version of an already flawed Windows 8, could only run apps from the largely vacant Windows Store, not the wealth of desktop apps computer users actually used.

The PC platform urgently needed to pivot. And to its credit, it did. Laptops today are both powerful and responsive. They’re sleek and sexy. They have an OS that’s both stable and compelling. And while all-day availability on a single charge is still elusive, battery life is much improved.

Further, the ACPC’s battery life comparisons are spurious, because they’re not measured on a complete version of Windows. Rather, they’re based on Windows 10 S, an RT-like version of Microsoft’s flagship OS that squeezes responsiveness and battery life by dropping support for desktop applications.

That tradeoff is no more palatable today than it was in 2012. Unlike RT, Windows 10 S can be upgraded to Windows 10 Pro – but at a cost of both battery life and performance. If that turns out to be too costly – and it just might be, given that Snapdragon is a smartphone processor now forced into x86 PC duty – then you’re out of luck. Because you can’t switch back to Windows 10 S.

It’s worth mentioning here that Intel quietly gave up on this whisper-thin, battery-life-over-all-else Windows segment 18 months ago, when it halted development of its Atom processor lineup. There just wasn’t much interest.

When all is said and done, I suspect Qualcomm eventually will follow Intel’s lead. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen too quickly. It would be great if the ACPC could hang around long enough to scare PC makers into delivering us better battery life on real laptops.

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