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Dell Ophelia or the impending death of desktop PC and how Windows RT might be the catalyst

Two announcements in the first two months of the year lead me to believe that we’re closer than ever to the end of the desktop personal computer era.

The first one was the launch earlier at CES, Dell’s diminutive Ophelia, a complete computer that’s housed in a HDMI dongle (and will be available in the first quarter of the year) and the second one, the HP Slate 7 tablet, was announced at MWC.

Both announcements are significant on numerous levels. Both HP and Dell are very big in desktop, with a very strong legacy in Intel-based Windows systems, and the arrival of ARMdroid devices, especially in non-traditional form factors, is intriguing to say the least.

From an observer’s perspective, the Ophelia validates the potentially destructive threat of ARM for the desktop PC fauna, an external (a term that’s not being used pejoratively) that could decimate traditional PC manufacturers if they don’t change. Adapt or perish.

What’s even more interesting is that both tier-1 companies opted for an “obscure” fabless Chinese semiconductor company, Rockchip, for their system-on-chip, eschewing the likes of Nvidia, TI or Qualcomm. Price, over and above performance/features, appeared to be the main determining factor. Anonymous sources quote well under $10 for a Chinese-designed dual-core SoC when purchased in bulk.

Dell and HP however chose different directions though. The Slate 7 is aiming at the very crowded, cheap-and-cheerful consumer audience while the Ophelia comes from Dell’s Wyse department with a resolutely conservative, entreprise-oriented focus.

Microsoft, we reckon, will be watching very closely how things go. If Acer, Lenovo and the likes decide to follow Dell, then it is likely that the company may decide to expand its ARM-based offering and sell Microsoft-branded HDMI dongles direct. Microsoft already sells Surface RT and we wouldn’t mind seeing a £100 version of it running Windows RT with Office 2013, let alone a two or three-year subscription to Office 365 with one of these dongles for free.

As more of the market coalesce around ARM solutions, hardware will be commoditized (because very similar building blocks will be used and performance differences will be marginal) which means that software and services will be where the selling points (and the margins) will be.