They were simpler times, when a desktop was a desktop, a laptop was a laptop, phones had a dial tone, and bread cost a nickel. OK, so maybe that's getting a bit carried away with the nostalgia. Suffice it to say, however, that times have changed for workplace technology -- perhaps for the PC more than anything else.
The PC has been evolving at a breakneck pace. It's no longer the only screen we spend our workdays staring at, either. But don't let anyone fool you: The PC isn't dead, especially not in offices. It's just no longer a straightforward, single-screen proposition for most businesses and their employees.
"Even by IT industry standards, the endpoint device market in 2014 is extremely complex, and subject to significant and abrupt changes," reads a new Techaisle report on the use of PCs and other "endpoints" -- namely, tablets -- in business environments. If anything, that might be an understatement.
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The report, which included input from 820 businesses with up to 1,000 employees apiece, examines several phenomena for PCs in the workplace that both underscore that complexity and belie the notion that the PC is going the way of the feature phone. We'll dive into those trends here and in a subsequent piece.
"PCs are still the basic foundation block of a business," says Techaisle analyst Anurag Agrawal, via email interview. "The role of the PC is changing."
Welcome to the multi-screen era
Once upon a time the standard-issue cubicle setup for many workers was a desktop or laptop PC and a landline phone. Even once cellphones exploded on the scene, we didn't constantly fiddle with them because, well, they were pretty much just phones -- not that exciting unless they rang, at least not until they smartened up in the iPhone and Android era. Now, we toil in an age where three or more screens per employee aren't uncommon, thanks to mobile devices, BYOD, and other trends.
"PCs are not the only computing device now -- there are smartphones, tablets, and other wearables that will start appearing," Agrawal says. It's a view that generally jibes with Microsoft's newish view of personal computing, where the hardware and operating system become relatively anonymous background players and the "experience" -- everything that happens on screen rather than who made the screen or the OS behind it -- is the marquee star.
"Many users now opt for a multi-screen approach to personal technology: they use smartphones to communicate and to consume content, use PCs to
collaborate and to create content, and use tablets to interact with content," he says. He distinguishes between content consumption -- reading, watching, listening, and browsing -- and content interaction. The latter would be presentations, sales interactions ("When was the last time we saw a demo on smartphone?"), cloud-based accounting, searching up retail menus and catalogs, and business intelligence (not just reading analytics reports but running "what-ifs" by inputting data).
This doesn't mean the PC is dying, though -- far from it. Although tablets are certainly a factor in flat PC sales, the idea that they're murdering the PC overshoots the mark. Agrawal points out that PC manufacturers still move about 300 million units per year worldwide. That number might seem meager when stacked next to the explosive growth percentages of recent mobile device sales, but he notes that smartphones in particular are subject to shorter refresh cycles driven largely by wireless carrier contracts.
Tablets, meanwhile, have predictably begun to experience their own slowdown from the hyper-growth of the past several years. Although still wildly popular, Techaisle found that tablets are considered "next screens" rather than replacement devices by most business users -- more than 70% of respondents. "Tablets may be delaying refresh cycles, but they aren't eliminating the need for PC refreshes altogether," says the Techaisle report.
There's also the matter of the term "PC" not necessarily meaning what it used to. For one thing, as Agrawal says, it's no longer a given that a PC runs Windows on Intel processors. Then there's the physical form of the hardware itself -- again, in the simpler times we knew within reason what a PC might look like. Today, it could mean something that combines three devices and two operating systems in a single product.
Take Microsoft's Surface Pro 3. You'd be forgiven for calling it any number of things from tablet, to laptop, to hybrid, to two-in-one, to any of the other terms in our growing vocabulary for what we used to just call a PC. Odds are, too, that the person carrying the Surface Pro 3 might also have an iPhone, an Android tablet, and a "legacy" PC running Windows 7 or Windows XP. Again, none of this is a requiem for the PC.
"The paradigm has shifted from a single-device user to multiple-device user -- from one to a minimum three, and two of those three devices are not a PC," he says. "But this does not [mean] that PCs are dead. If they were truly dead then we would have not have seen a surge in desktop purchases in the last quarter."
Did he just say a surge in desktop purchases? Yep, that's not a misprint. Techaisle's report found that nearly 90% of midsize firms (with between 100 and 1,000 employees) plan to buy desktop models in 2014, with larger companies (500-plus employees) buying in bulk. Stay tuned: In a follow-up piece, we'll look at why some businesses have desktop purchases in their near-term plans, as well as several other trends affecting PCs in the workplace.
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