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What do you do if you’re a PC maker with an eye on the future? Apple aside, the industry mostly just takes commodity parts and puts them together in a box, leaving little room for anyone to stand out.

It might be tempting to consolidate, as size means greater negotiating clout with suppliers and retailers. Unlike the market for servers, where the five largest makers control 80 per cent of the market, the top five PC companies take just 56 per cent. And mergers have already improved profitability by removing two of the most aggressive competitors – Compaq to Hewlett-Packard in 2002, and Gateway to Taiwan’s Acer in 2007. So pricing has been more rational in this downturn than in the last. Even expansionist Acer intends to maintain its 2 per cent operating margin.

However, it is hard to see big deals that make sense. Merging Chinese Lenovo with Acer might help the former to sort out its supply chain. But so much of production and distribution is now outsourced that there is little that Acer would bring to Dell or HP that they could not attempt on their own, without the expense or headache of integration and antitrust issues.

There is, after all, growth left to find. Businesses, which buy half the world’s PCs, are largely just replacing old kit. Consumers, though, are still after laptops, with Barclays Capital forecasting growth in the segment of 9 per cent this year. Much of that comes from sales of low-specification netbooks – likely to top 30m in 2009 out of a total laptop market of about 155m – which eat into fully functional machine sales. But the trend is towards a world where everybody has a genuinely personal computer. In that case, the conclusion for manufacturers is remarkably simple: sell everywhere, as efficiently as possible. Dell should deal with more retailers. HP should increasingly go direct to companies. Investors should scorn attempts to do anything more pyrotechnic than that.

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