What will a “PC” be in the future? It used to be one monolithic category, but is now fragmenting rapidly into a variety of sub-businesses, way beyond the desktop PC, laptop, and server markets.

Building desktop PCs has irrevocably become a commodity business, but meanwhile multiple opportunities for innovation are opening up. Already the iPod, TiVo, Xbox, Handspring Treo and numerous other devices are inheritors of various functions that were once confined to the PC. Each is a computer that is in some way “personal.”



Note two telling news items from Tuesday. First, IBM is not selling its PC server business, which is highly profitable and technologically cutting-edge. The Lenovo deal is only about computers meant for one person—truly “P” Cs. Then Intel said some interesting new things at its analyst meeting. First, it promised its chips would become ten times more powerful than they are today over the next three years, a pace of evolution never seen before. And the microprocessor-maker detailed more about its evolving strategy to focus product development on “platforms” for specific industry sub-segments. We have already seen the rapid success of Intel’s Centrino platform for portable PCs. Now it will build chips and systems intended specifically for the digital home, for office workers, and interestingly, for the markets in the developing world and, especially, Internet cafes there. AMD, Intel’s ever-more-arch rival, has already launched its own specialized chip and first-ever entire computer—a super-cheap device for very-poor consumers in the developing world. (I wrote the first story about this device in Fortune recently in “Meet Emma—AMD’s Computer for the Masses.”



The future market-share battle in computers for individuals will hardly be confined to Dell, HP, and Lenovo, numbers one through three in today’s PC market as conventionally defined. Those giants will face steady and creative competition from a list of companies that will include Apple, Nokia, PalmOne, Sony, and possibly Microsoft itself. This will become a business of hits, fads, design, and brand. That’s why, in a message to employees about the Lenovo deal, IBM CEO Sam Palmisano explained that PCs were entering a phase for which IBM, with its focus on the enterprise, was unsuited. “The PC business is rapidly taking on characteristics of the home and consumer electronics industry,” he said.



Will the newly enlarged Lenovo be suited for this new universe? Probably. The company’s management history has been uneven, though always aided by big support from the Chinese government, its largest shareholder. But I expect Lenovo to be aggressive in migrating the PC platform toward new opportunities. It has already forayed, for instance, into the cellphone business, one area Dell and HP have thus far avoided.



More here.