PC shipments in Japan have steadily declined over the past five quarters. NEC and Sony's sales are falling off, and Hitachi has announced that it will discontinue its consumer computer business.
Is Japan going to become the first post-PC society?
If so, we're going to read lots about the woes of PC makers, along with the questionable advisability of buying stock in any company that does business selling computers to First World consumers.
But I'm more interested in what the phenomena suggests to brand marketers who hope to sell things other than PCs. There are two things going on that are yielding a quite novel outcome:
First, folks don't need computers anymore to compute. It never really made sense to have massive computational resources chained to your desk at work or in the family rec room, and few of us ever used a fraction of that power any more than we use more than a small percentage of our own brains. So we don't really need beige boxes that are capable of computing the details of the human genome, or analyzing the syntax of every book in the Library of Congress.
Instead, we want to know if Brittany is back in rehab, or share a song or gossip with a friend. What most people compute is their social networking status, or how many magic rings of splendor they've acquired slaying dragons.
We can do that computing via our mobile phones, which can surf the net. Or use video game consoles, or one of the many DVR rigs connected to TVs. And before we connect, there's lots of computing going on within many everyday items. Cars are notoriously so enabled. Your average soda pop dispenser is smarter than some of the earliest computers. Poke your finger at any lit screen, and there's a good chance it'll answer you. Bank ATMs think more than I do during much of my day.
Wireless connections undulating out of every coffee and fast food outlet mean we can get online just about anywhere, anytime. And almost anything we use will compute stuff for us.
It's not that Japan will become the first post-PC society, but rather the first PC-everywhere society.
As this computing power gets distributed, there's a second trend going on simultaneously, and that is consumers are outsourcing their consent for purchases of goods and services.
Brand marketers don't tell individuals to buy things anymore as much as offer information into the cybervoid, whereat each claim is discussed, commented upon, tested, qualified, judged, recommended, and then reviewed again. Consumers makes purchase decisions mostly by checking and conversation, and more and more of that is happening online.
There exists online an informal combination of consumer report, coffee clutch, malfunction repository, and comparison shopping tool for every product or service we hope to sell, and now this mechanism is available to people pretty much anywhere, anytime.
So who needs brands when you have ubiquitous information?
Branding was always shorthand that existed to fill the information gap inherent in a marketplace where customers were separated by time, space, and experience from sellers, and from one another.
In the PC-everywhere society, that gap no longer exists.
Brand marketing can promise me, personally, with my name attached to an email and loads of intimate knowledge about my life, that a product will make me immensely happy for practically no cost...and I'll still outsource that purchase decision to the cybervoid, whether actively in the communities in which I tread, or informally, with at least a check of complaints or the veracity of the claim in a search or two.
It shouldn't matter to marketers where or how PC sales occur (well, other than matter to marketers of PCs, of course). The shift to a PC-everywhere society could change how consumers behave and, as such, should be changing how we conceive of, and deliver, branding.
Maybe that's not such a dim bulb idea...