A diagram from Microsoft's modular PC patent application.
A diagram from Microsoft’s modular PC patent application.

FEB. 16, 2016 • Last July, Microsoft Corp. filed for a U.S. patent on a modular PC design in which GPU, CPU and accessory components would be housed in separate easy to stack components without requiring any tools. Microsoft’s application was published by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office on February 11. The reason behind Microsoft’s interest in modular design is that the company sees that most consumers upgrade their PCs by buying a whole new system, which might be a net deterrent to both sales and upgrading. Razer Inc. has been promoting its Project Christine modular concept since 2014, and Acer Inc. released its own modular Revo Build Series PC since last fall. The most divergent feature in Microsoft’s design is the inclusion of the monitor in the proposed patent.

Impact: The market to build modular PCs is growing significantly and games are a leading driver of this growth. DFC Intelligence forecasts that the market for modular PC game hardware systems will reach $14 billion in 2016. While it is impossible to know how much interest Microsoft has in modular PC hardware, that the firm is even investigating options fits nicely with its developing operating system business model, as well as trends in PC hardware retail. The company is transitioning its important Windows and Office software products to a service-based format where fees can be assessed on consumers for in-depth features rather than selling complete packages at retail as has been the tradition. That falls in line with the reality of falling PC shipments and lengthening replacement cycles by consumers.

Razer's Project Christine.
Razer’s Project Christine.

Offering modular subcomponents that fit into each other like Lego blocks and communicate seamlessly might make a lot of sense to a consumer who only wants to upgrade memory or the graphics GPU without having to worry about popping the hood on a traditional ATX case. The question is, who is responsible for offering the modules? Does Nvidia design the reference module for each of its GPUs? Do Intel and AMD design the reference module for each of their CPUs? Or is it the hardware manufacturer responsible for each modular system that must design and offer a selection of component modules? It is obvious that there would be a significant amount of module SKU complexity necessary to provide target mainstream consumers with decent variety.

Acer’s Revo Build Series.
Acer’s Revo Build Series.

The different modular systems currently available have little in common. Razer’s Project Christine is a tower-sized rack in which modules are inserted, while Acer’s Revo Build Series looks like a collection of Mac Mini’s stacked upon each other. Microsoft’s proposal is also a stacked design, but the modules appear lower and wider than Acer’s. None of this has much impact on core PC gamers who have no aversion to building and upgrading their own rigs, but it does show that there is a desire to offer better options to mainstream PC consumers. We do not feel the right execution has surfaced yet to make modular PCs a hit, but are keen to see whether Microsoft decides to turn its take on the concept into an actual viable product. The firm has a long history of solid hardware design, so we would not put it past them.

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