What it is: Intel’s processor strategy used to define the PC market. Not any more.
At one time, the PC market was predictable. Every time Intel introduced a new processor, it was faster than the previous one. That meant that software could take advantage of new features and provide better user experiences for everyone.
Back in the early days of the IBM PC, Intel offered a simple 8086. Then they improved it with the 80286 followed by the 80386 and the 80486. When Intel learned that they couldn’t trademark numbers, they came up with the name of Pentium to describe the 80586.
With each new version of a processor, software could be more versatile so each new Intel processor created a wave of PC upgrades. After all, few people or businesses wanted to settle for their older PCs when a newer one cost slightly less yet offered dramatically more power. Back then, it made sense to upgrade as often as possible because each new processor gave you dramatically better performance.
Those days are over. Intel’s latest processor was dubbed Broadwell, which came out late. Then they introduced Skylake, which is still making its way into today’s current batch of PCs. Despite the advantages of the Broadwell and Skylake processors, something funny happened. People stopped caring.
The problem wasn’t that the latest Intel processors didn’t offer dramatically improved performance. The big problem was that it was no longer important any more. Apple’s previous MacBook Pro laptops used a faster Intel processor than the current MacBook laptops, which use a much slower Intel M processor. Yet the MacBook boots up and runs dramatically faster than a MacBook Pro with a faster processor. The difference in speed is mostly dependent on the fact that the newer MacBook used a solid state drive while the older MacBook Pro (with the faster processor) uses mechanical hard drives.
Thus the bottleneck in today’s computers is no longer the processor but the components that make up the rest of the computer. That’s why graphics cards can speed up a computer just as much as using a solid state drive instead of a mechanical hard drive. While Intel’s processors continue improving (despite Intel’s problems manufacturing the latest processors that cause numerous delays), the real speed of today’s computers are no longer dependent on the processor.
So it doesn’t really matter how much Intel improves their processors since the real key are the additional components that make up the rest of the computer. Faster processors now give marginal, negligible benefits. That’s why Intel’s delay of their Broadwell and Skylake processors isn’t much of a disaster since today’s PCs are roughly as fast as yesterday’s PCs. That’s partially why PC sales keep dropping because there’s no reason to upgrade.
In the past, you had to upgrade to run the latest software. Today, Windows 10 comfortably runs on PCs originally designed for Windows 7. That’s partially due to Microsoft making Windows 10 smaller and more efficient, but also partially because there’s little need for the latest Intel processors any more. The PC market has been stagnant for a long time and processors that offer marginal improvements simply can’t entice people or corporations to upgrade any more.
In the old days, computer ads used to boast about the processor they used as an indirect way to tell you that the computer was faster than previous models. Today’s computer ads rarely mention the processor inside because it doesn’t matter any more.
Intel will still be in business making processors for PCs but even they can see that market is shrinking. The PC market will never go away but it will never assume its previous importance ever again. Part of that is due to people relying more on smartphones and tablets, but part of that has to do with the fact that Intel processors no longer offer dramatic improvements between each version. Intel isn’t going anywhere, but neither are sales of PCs.