Exclusive | Users realise all computing can’t be done on phones, says Yusuf Mehdi
‘The rise of hybrid working, and learning has made a fundamental structural change to the technology people use. People are realising that a PC is a better tool,’ says Yusuf Mehdi, Corporate Vice President - Modern Life, Search & Devices at Microsoft.
Amidst the trail of despair and long-term damage the Coronavirus pandemic has left in its wake, one rare silver lining, based on anecdotal and statistical evidence, has been the re-found relevance of the personal computer (PC) market. The pandemic and its forced requirement of a transition to work from home (WFH) has brought the good old computer back in focus.
In an exclusive conversation with HT, Yusuf Mehdi, Corporate Vice President - Modern Life, Search & Devices at Microsoft said, “The rise of hybrid working, and learning has made a fundamental structural change to the technology people use. People are realising that a PC is a better tool.”
More people have been buying computers over the last 2 years, and the numbers suggest they continue to do so. In Q4 2021, research firm Canalys clocked the global PC shipments at 92 million, making it a full year counter of 341 million units (15% more than that of 2020). In Q3 2021, the latest numbers for India, PC shipments grew 34% year-on-year, at 5.3 million.
“Prior to the pandemic, people had started to think that they could do all their computing on the phone. Now we can see there are a lot of scenarios that are better on a PC,” Mehdi points out. He illustrates the example of a computer science student. They can write code, compile it, and then see it in action on one screen. “It is a must have. You can’t do that on the phone,” he says.
But would it be right to compare a phone and a computer? “The truth is, apart from a better camera with a few more megapixels, there aren’t a lot of changes from your last phone to the latest phone,” Mehdi observes. “PCs change dramatically. I think that value equation millions of people have been reminded about,” he adds.
Have any specific trends stood out? Mehdi says hybrid work has stood out, quite obviously. “There has been a 6X increase in people using communication and collaboration apps like Cisco WebEx, Slack and Microsoft Teams. Entertainment has changed, not just how you consume, but even the creation. Movies are being made to go in the theater and for streaming at home,” he points out, delving into Microsoft’s data.
He adds that since the pandemic, 70% more people are streaming content from streaming platforms such as Netflix and YouTube, while the monthly gaming minutes have grown by as much as 35%. PC users are also spending 40% more time on shopping online.
Is this change permanent? Mehdi tackles this with a different point, and points to the earlier trend of one PC per home, which is changing—now where it can be afforded, homes are switching to one PC per person. Purely for convenience with remote work, online classrooms, and entertainment consumption. “We’ve seen older baby boomers order groceries online. Earlier, they would never do that. Younger kids who always wanted a phone, have come back to PCs. They are revisiting how nice it is to have a pen to be able to draw art, do math or take notes,” he adds.
In Q3 2021, the latest numbers for India, PC shipments grew 34% year-on-year, at 5.3 million. In Q4 2021, research firm Canalys clocked the global PC shipments at 92 million, making it a full year counter of 341 million units (15% more than 2020). “That’s a pretty impressive number for a country where the larger computing infrastructure has been mobile phones,” says Mehdi.
Mehdi is bullish about India as a market. “It is a critical market and that’s not just because my father is from India,” he says, unable to hold back a smile. It is not just for PCs and computing devices, but also technological innovation in general. He points out that the future of the mobile internet happened in a large part in India, something that Microsoft and the larger tech ecosystem learnt a lot from.
He is hopeful that with Android apps arriving on Windows 11 sometime in the next few weeks, more Indian app developers will play a part with Windows in the coming time.
There are around 870,178 app developers on the Play Store, publishing apps, according to research by 42matters. Of this, 29,630 are Indian app developers – that’s about 3% of the total. But the share increases in terms of the app published share – 5% (that is 151,671 apps) out of a total of 2,758,476 apps. The highlight is that Indian apps have a higher average rating (3.92 stars compared with 3.63 stars).
India’s role in the PC sales momentum is also very important. When asked whether the PC sales volumes will continue to go up, he says, “I think that depends a lot on supply chain, components and OEMs driving demand. It’s a very nuanced process.” But that is where India and similar countries, which still have low PC penetration, can potentially drive volumes.
“As India continues to advance as a country, there will be the demand for computers. India’s a country that could have amazing growth because there’re not that many PCs in use, he says. But the challenges aren’t to be taken lightly. “If we just look at the middle class, millions can’t afford a PC. It’s also complicated because you need to have broadband connectivity, but there are ways to get there,” Mehdi observes.
Windows OS, which now runs on 1.4 billion monthly active devices, many of those having more than one user each. Windows 11 upgrades on eligible PCs are happening faster than what unfolded with Windows 10 many years ago. That, when Windows 10 was designed with wider compatibility in mind, for the Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 PCs at the time. “Windows 10 was very much designed to be an upgrade. we optimised for it to run on as many machines as possible,” he points out.
Windows 11 was designed to push the envelope of innovation, which is also the reason why Microsoft detailed stricter minimum hardware requirements for PCs eligible for Windows 11. There are under-the-hood improvements and upgrades for webcams, microphones, how solid-state drives (SSDs) perform and the gaming experience—some of this feedback coming from data collected on the changing usage trends over the last two years. “We try to improve the experiences with the data we were getting,” he says.
That innovation push also led to some confusion initially when the PC Checker Tool didn’t generate the correct upgrade guidance. That led to a lot of conversation on tech forums and social media, often not pleasant, as users were confused whether their existing laptop or desktop would get Windows 11 or not. Mehdi admits things could have been handled better. “When we were in beta testing, we had a PC checker tool that we put out also as a beta to tell people if their PC ready to upgrade. I think we could have done a better job with that tool,” he admits.
Part of that is the way Windows 11 has separated important parts of the operating system. That allows for quicker updates for individual apps and features, such as Microsoft Edge. The company has already announced that the February update for Windows 11 will include Android apps compatibility, taskbar improvements and new versions of the media player as well as the notepad app.
“We are trying to drive faster innovation with Windows. Historically, it was all one big operating system release and then that took a long time,” Mehdi confirms the new update strategy is by design.
When asked about Microsoft’s focus on the Surface devices, Mehdi is adamant that the company is very much committed. Microsoft’s latest Q2 2022 results (this is the period ending December 2021) indicate the Surface computing devices raked in lesser revenue than the same period last year—even though the larger personal computing category revenues increased 9% (this includes Windows OEM revenue, Xbox content and services as well as cloud services). “Our latest Surface devices are now higher rated than any Apple device,” he points out.
Mehdi sums up Microsoft’s line of thinking quite succinctly. “We don’t want to do things where we know others can do. We want to focus on what we can uniquely do, and that’s where we spend our energies,” he says. That perhaps also explains, among other developments, why Microsoft now has the widest Surface computing device line-up ever—there are 7 different products classified across laptops and 1-in-1 PCs, and that’s before the variants come into the picture. Not many PC makers have been able to successfully replicate many of those form factors, or the polished Windows experience they tend to offer.