As an IT pro, gamer, and someone who's built PCs for both business and personal use, I was really excited to moderate ZDNet's Great Debate, PC homebrewing and white-boxing: Dead or alive?
Jason Perlow, Senior Technology Editor at ZDNet, argued that the days when building a PC made sense are long gone:
"While there still exists a cottage industry for building "White Boxes" and supporting the homebrewed PC enthusiast, this industry is not a healthy one. The homebrewing and White Box industry is on the verge of extinction."
Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, a ZDNet contributor, argued the opposite position:
"While there's no doubt that big-box PC OEMs have driven computer prices into the dirt - so much so that it's hard for the OEMs themselves to cut a profit - there's still room in the market for DIYers who want to build their own PCs."
Arguments for and against
As moderator, I focused the debate around three themes—building PCs for business, DIY desktops for the home, and the effect of PC sales/manufacturing trends on the homebrew market.Note: Our debaters were arguing the pros and cons of building vs. buying desktop PCs. They weren't addressing custom-built (i.e. whitebox) network and datacenter hardware, such as Google's Pluto Switch, or open networking technology, such as Facebook's Open Compute Project (OCP) or Google OpenFlow protocol.
Building PCs for the business
Adrian believes businesses can still benefit from building their own machines. DIY desktops can be customized to meet specific business needs. Upgrades and repairs are easier. And you can ensure the quality of every part that goes into the machine. "Bottom line," he wrote, "with a brand-name system you have very little control over what goes into the machine."
Jason countered that DIY desktops won't save the business money (due to the commoditization of desktop hardware) and don't offer better support options (as OEMs offer onsite support plans). "Time is money," he wrote. "Do you want your highly-paid IT staff wasting valuable time playing PC tech, or to focus their energies in support your line of business applications and infrastructure?"
DIY desktops at home
For the average consumer, Jason doesn't believe there is any advantage to building a PC:
"If we are talking about a typical consumer with a capital C (and not a Hobbyist, or a Gamer) someone who browses the web, engages in social networking, and uses productivity and typical multimedia applications, and plays games casually, then you should never consider building a PC."
First, there's the added cost of an operating system license. Second, it can be difficult to source quality retail components. Third, PC homebrewing takes a significant amount of time and effort. Lastly if you have a local PC shop build the machine for you, there's a very real chance it could go out of business and leave you without support.
Adrian acknowledges these downsides, but believes they shouldn't deter people from building their own machines.
Declining PC sales and move to mobile
In April, IDC reported that PC shipments fell 14 percent in the first quarter of 2013—the worst year-over-year decline since the company began collecting the numbers in 1994. Data from Gartner and even Intel show a similar downward trend. Many attribute this decline to the proliferation of mobile computing devices (tablets, smartphones, wearable computers, etc.) and the growth of cloud-based software, services, and storage. I asked each debater how the the overall decline in PC sales will affect the homebrew PC market.
Jason believes this is the real "meat" of the debate:
"Movement towards low-cost SoC-based and APU-based devices, whether they be Ultrabooks, tablets, smartphones, convergence devices, wearables, shifts computational power and infrastructure from the desktop to the datacenter and Cloud and also software from a purchased/licensed to a subscription and SaaS/DaaS model. So building PCs will make far less sense than ever before."
When asked if the move away from discrete PC components would put additional pressure on the homebrew market, Jason continued:
"In summary, we're moving towards a model where PCs are no longer going to be serviceable, whether it is a notebook computer with soldered-on everything or a PC mainboard that is simply a just a glorified SoC with onboard GPU, RAM and networking. I don't see how a PC building ecosystem can continue to be viable in that way."
Not so fast, Adrian pointed out:
"While there has certainly been a shift towards reducing the number of discrete components inside PCs - for the sake of making them easier to build for the OEMs - the major players (such as Intel and AMD) have all reaffirmed their commitment to the enthusiast market. In other words, it's going to be possible to build PCs for the foreseeable future."
Dead in business and dying at home
Most debate voters (90 percent) and forum participants believe there's still plenty of life left in the homebrew PC market. And Andrian made an impassioned argument that homebrewing is still practical—but only in a few very narrow business situations and for the PC enthusiast.
"First off," Adrian wrote, "while I'm a huge DIY PC advocate, I'm not suggesting that business build every PC they need." Adrian also acknowledges that off-the-shelf PCs are less expensive, writing that "if you want a bunch of cheap PCs for regular desktop usage, then it's always going to be quicker and cheaper to buy these off-the-shelf than it is to build them."
Along with price, other trends are pushing the homebrew market further into obscurity. PC sales are declining. Component manufacturers are slowly but surely moving away from discrete hardware. And consumers are migrating en masse to mobile devices (smartphones and tablets) and laptops.
This doesn't mean the homebrew market will disappear tomorrow or even within the next decade. As Jason noted, there are individuals who are "permanently fixated in a DIY worldview who can never be convinced to buy systems from OEMs." But this group of PC builders is a "small and ever declining portion of the PC using population."
For all intents and purposes, the homebrew PC is dead within the business and dying (albeit slowly) within the consumer market.
For more on Jason's and Adrian's arguments, check out their follow-up articles on the debate:
Bill Detwiler has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop support specialist in the social research and energy industries. He has bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Louisville, where he has also lectured on computer crime and crime prevention.