The Commoditization of the Personal Computer

Over the past thirty years, as the personal computer has gone from technical marvel to part of our everyday lives, it has also become a commodity. The PC has become a commodity in the sense that there is very little differentiation between computers, and the primary factor that controls their sale is their price. Hundreds of manufacturers all over the world now create parts for personal computers. Dozens of companies buy these parts and assemble the computers. As commodities, there are essentially no differences between computers made by these different companies. Profit margins for personal computers are razor-thin, leading hardware developers to find the lowest-cost manufacturing.

There is one brand of computer for which this is not the case – Apple. Because Apple does not make computers that run on the same open standards as other manufacturers, they can make a unique product that no one can easily copy. By creating what many consider to be a superior product, Apple can charge more for their computers than other manufacturers. Just as with the iPad and iPhone, Apple has chosen a strategy of differentiation, which, at least at this time, seems to be paying off.

THE PROBLEM OF ELECTRONIC WASTE

Electronic waste (Public Domain)

Personal computers have been around for over thirty-five years. Millions of them have been used and discarded. Mobile phones are now available in even the remotest parts of the world and, after a few years of use, they are discarded. Where does this electronic debris end up?

Often, it gets routed to any country that will accept it. Many times, it ends up in dumps in developing nations. These dumps are beginning to be seen as health hazards for those living near them. Though many manufacturers have made strides in using materials that can be recycled, electronic waste is a problem with which we must all deal.

SUMMARY

Information systems hardware consists of the components of digital technology that you can touch. In this chapter, we reviewed the components that make up a personal computer, with the understanding that the configuration of a personal computer is very similar to that of any type of digital computing device. A personal computer is made up of many components, most importantly the CPU, motherboard, RAM, hard disk, removable media, and input/output devices. We also reviewed some variations on the personal computer, such as the tablet computer and the smartphone. In accordance with Moore’s Law, these technologies have improved quickly over the years, making today’s computing devices much more powerful than devices just a few years ago. Finally, we discussed two of the consequences of this evolution: the commoditization of the personal computer and the problem of electronic waste.

STUDY QUESTIONS

  1. Write your own description of what the term information systems hardware means.
  2. What is the impact of Moore’s Law on the various hardware components described in this chapter?
  3. Write a summary of one of the items linked to in the “Integrated Computing” section.
  4. Explain why the personal computer is now considered a commodity.
  5. The CPU can also be thought of as the _____________ of the computer.
  6. List the following in increasing order (slowest to fastest): megahertz, kilohertz, gigahertz.
  7. What is the bus of a computer?
  8. Name two differences between RAM and a hard disk.
  9. What are the advantages of solid-state drives over hard disks?
  10. How heavy was the first commercially successful portable computer?

EXERCISES

  1. Review the sidebar on the binary number system. How would you represent the number 16 in binary? How about the number 100? Besides decimal and binary, other number bases are used in computing and programming. One of the most used bases is hexadecimal, which is base-16. In base-16, the numerals 0 through 9 are supplemented with the letters A (10) through F (15). How would you represent the decimal number 100 in hexadecimal?
  2. Review the timeline of computers at the Old Computers website. Pick one computer from the listing and write a brief summary. Include the specifications for CPU, memory, and screen size. Now find the specifications of a computer being offered for sale today and compare. Did Moore’s Law hold true?
  3. The Homebrew Computer Club was one of the original clubs for enthusiasts of the first personal computer, the Altair 8800. Read some of their newsletters and then discuss some of the issues surrounding this early personal computer.
  4. If you could build your own personal computer, what components would you purchase? Put together a list of the components you would use to create it, including a computer case, motherboard, CPU, hard disk, RAM, and DVD drive. How can you be sure they are all compatible with each other? How much would it cost? How does this compare to a similar computer purchased from a vendor such as Dell or HP?
  5. Review the Wikipedia entry on electronic waste. Now find at least two more scholarly articles on this topic. Prepare a slideshow that summarizes the issue and then recommend a possible solution based on your research.
  6. As with any technology text, there have been advances in technologies since publication. What technology that has been developed recently would you add to this chapter?
  7. What is the current state of solid-state drives vs. hard disks? Do original research online where you can compare price on solid-state drives and hard disks. Be sure you note the differences in price, capacity, and speed.