HP Inc. PC President Alex Cho: ‘Get Ready For The Return Of The PC’

HP Personal Systems President Alex Cho 

Ten years ago, when the Apple iPad was released, you could hear the PC industry’s collective shrug. Some like me thought it would impact the PC and the Mac, but most thought it would not. PC unit volumes were growing, there seemed to be a lot of competition, and netbooks, despite their lackluster quality and experience, were driving volumes up. Then the iPad started to take off, followed by lower-priced Android tablets. While I’d rather not debate whether those 200-300M tablets directly lowered PC sales or whether they were add-on devices, there’s no question that PC sales declined fast. The PC industry reacted with thinner and lighter devices, driven in part by Intel’s touch and 2-in-1 “Ultrabooks,” banking on the end user realization that for many tasks, the tablet simply could not replace the PC.  

Fast-forward to 2020 and tablet volumes have dropped 50% from their peak, to 150M units. The market is bifurcated, with Apple and Microsoft dominating the premium tablet and Samsung, Amazon, Huawei and others splitting the lower-end. Even Apple’s Tim Cooke performed what I consider an “apology tour,” telling the press that Apple was very much committed to the Mac platform. The PC “survived” the tablet onslaught, but could one say that it is “thriving”? I had the chance to talk with HP’s Personal Systems lead Alex Cho last week on this very subject and I wanted to share some of those thoughts.  

Gen Z PC usage

My three Gen Z kids all grew up in the age of powerful smartphones with high level operating systems. Something I’ve noticed is that in spite of the industry worries of smarter, smaller devices cutting into the fading PC market, my kids spend quite a lot of time on their PCs. In my talks with Cho, he shared with me that HP has found actual data to back up what I’ve seen firsthand—PC usage, particularly by Gen Z, is actually on the rise. According to Cho, HP’s studies have found that tablet usage has diminished, smartphone usage remains high (though for short bursts at a time), and PC usage for Gen Z is at 45% (give or take 5%) and consistently increasing.

According to Cho, a big part of understanding these growing numbers is understanding what the younger generation is predominately using these PCs. This comes down to predominately the three C’s—creation, consumption and collaboration. Creation includes everything from professional creators, to photography, to film, to music, to 2D and 3D art. Cho put it very eloquently in our interview, when he said, “There’s probably nothing more human than wanting to make your mark, express it, create something, and convey it.” Gen Zers are increasingly turning to PCs as one of the main tools to facilitate self-expression.

The second C, consumption, is fairly self-explanatory. According to Cho, more and more people around the world are using their PCs for streaming TV and movies, thanks to the rise of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Also included in this category is immersive gaming, a segment which Cho noted was growing and expanding to include more and more demographics—more women, older gamers, enthusiasts, casual gamers and more.

Lastly, collaboration—more and more people are using their PCs to connect with others, whether that’s from office to home, office to office, or across the globe.

PC Relevance Increasing

An interesting thing that I was interested to hear about from Cho was how HP thinks about the differences between the technology usage of Gen Z and the generation before it, Millennials. While he acknowledged that the data here was a little too new and developing to form hard conclusions, signs point to Gen Z being more interested in how a device can fit into their lives versus millennials, who are more prone to running to a device and fitting their lives around it. Another way he phrased it was that Gen Z may be more prone to see technology as an enabler of their lifestyles versus something to hold up and celebrate in and of itself.

How HP leans into this

On this note, I asked Cho what HP Inc. is doing to accelerate and lean into these trends and changing wants and needs. This first thing he cited was the fact that HP is even studying these trends and deriving insights from them. According to Cho, HP is finding new ways to study usage, including listening closely to customers on an ongoing basis. He went on to say that he is meeting with Gen Zs directly to listen and learn, while making a point to make these conversations open and not scripted.

Secondly, Cho says HP is continuing to focus on design that appeals to the Gen Z segment, in terms of color, materials, form factor, size and personalization options. An example of this is the new Dragonfly, which is made from recycled materials. Cho went on to say that HP is finding that these design elements often tend to go on to be attractive to other generational segments as well.

Another area Cho says HP is leaning into is security and privacy. This focus is increasingly necessary given the fact that Gen Z (and everyone, frankly) are becoming less likely to want to stay at their office desk to work. He described the two issues of security and privacy as overlapping in a Venn diagram, pointing out that while cybersecurity is very important in both the enterprise and consumer space, consumers recognize and respond more to the notion of privacy—protecting their own info, through features like webcam and mic kill switches, fingerprint authentication, etc.

I also asked Cho about connectivity, and how HP thinks about it in terms of an increasingly mobile millennial and Gen Z-centered workforce. Cho explained that HP thinks of connectivity as a multi-faced issue—designing for both current and future technologies. In terms of the present, HP says it has invested heavily in Wi-Fi (specifically Wi-Fi 6) and has begun measuring other factors than throughput (such as distance from nodes). He went on to say that HP is interested in ensuring Wi-Fi quality of connectivity, in all different parts of a building/domicile, versus simply thinking throughput as a checkbox. He cited HP’s position as the first PC manufacturer to have Wi-Fi 6 across its entire commercial and consumer portfolio.

In terms of looking forward, Cho said HP is focused on preparing for LTE connectivity and 4X4 MIMO and building towards an “always connected” future. He also cited HP’s focus on 5G and its potential to not only accelerate current usage models but enable entirely new ones in the future.

Lastly, he cited Gen Z’s general propensity towards choosing devices that reflect their concerns with sustainability. HP is a company that has a long history of investing in and experimenting with sustainable practices long before it was “cool.” Cho cited the Dragonfly’s utilization of recycled materials, as well as the company’s ability to make laptop sleeves, backpacks, and more from recycled plastic bottles.

It takes a village

I went on to ask HP who else in the industry is excited and involved in pushing PCs forward. Cho emphasized that he believes the ecosystem at large is catching up and realizing the energy that is in the PC space at the moment. He went on to cite HP focus groups and the enthusiasm they’ve seen from users—from video bloggers to gamers, Cho says there is a lot of enthusiasm for new technologies such as 4K that are popping up in PCs. In addition, he cited enthusiasm from the professional creators about the new use cases next-gen PCs enable, as well as businesses and employees who are excited about what these cutting-edge PCs will enable in the workplace of the future.

I believe in what Cho said above, but I think it’s going to take a Microsoft or Google, too, to invest in new PC use cases. I’m disappointed that I am running multiple neural networks on my phones but not on my Windows PC.

What’s next

We concluded our interview looking forward to what’s next on HP’s agenda. Cho promised big announcements from HP’s upcoming Reinvent show in Anaheim, CA (March 25-27th), and previewed the event’s focus on compute beyond the traditional PC. He cited HP’s desire to not only enable users to “do more stuff” but also be more excited to do it with the new technology and devices at their fingertips. He also spoke on HP’s movement away from emphasis on speeds and feeds, and towards creating more unique, focused experiences that enable and energize its customers. Cho described this, aptly, as a more empathetic approach to computing. While it’s not a word typically applied to technology, after talking to Cho, I think that empathetic really does more or less sum up HP’s approach to PC computing in this Gen Z-ascendant market. With its focus on enabling the three Cs (creation, consumption, and collaboration), and its attention to design, connectivity, security and sustainability, I think HP is on the right track. I’m looking forward to the dispatches from Reinvent next month and seeing how they fit into this strategy.

Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.