How is the PC not dead yet?
Handheld Technology

How is the PC not dead yet?

One of the recurring themes of the past several years has been the impending death of the PC. The IT press has been full of stories about how the PC was being superseded by newer devices such as smartphones and tablets. The talk was of millennials flooding into the workplace and refusing to be tied to a desk. Organizations that refused to adapt to a post-PC world would be snubbed by younger workers and left behind by the white heat of technology.

As is often the case, the reality has turned out to be much more nuanced than the simplistic picture painted by these stories. Look around a typical corporate office today and you will still see desktop and laptop systems very much in use, whether they are running Windows, Linux or are Apple Mac systems.

Instead, what has happened is that organizations and their workers are now typically operating multiple devices and platforms, with smartphones, tablets and PCs all being used alongside each other, for whatever task each platform is best suited to.

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“Employees are gravitating towards different devices in undertaking different tasks,” said Adam Holtby, senior analyst for Enterprise Mobility and Productivity at Ovum.

“They are benefiting from a more enriched endpoint and application ecosystem. It is not a case of one replacing the other, but more how workstyles can evolve and business processes be optimized as a result of this enriched ecosystem,” he added.

In fact, far from fading away from the workplace, shipments of business PCs are expected to see a return to growth by the end of this year, according to recent research figures from Gartner. This has been attributed to faster than anticipated uptake of Windows 10 in many regions, especially Western Europe.

“Despite the fact that prices have been rising due to higher component costs, Windows 10 replacements have kept the PC market relatively stable through 2017,” Gartner research director Ranjit Atwal said in a statement accompanying the figures.

Part of the reason for the continued reliance on desktop and laptop systems is their power and versatility: they are flexible general-purpose devices able to handle a wide variety of workloads, often running multiple applications at the same time. PCs are still around because they meet a business requirement, and the only thing that can do all of the same tasks as a PC is another PC.

There is another more pragmatic reason, of course: the applications and services that organizations rely on are still largely developed for and operate on PCs, although browser-based applications delivered from the cloud are starting to change this.

 

Welcome to the multi-platform workplace

So why have PC sales shrunk over the past several years? One of the reasons is that consumers gravitated towards tablets as a perfectly good solution for viewing content, following the introduction of the Apple iPad. Meanwhile, organizations found that they are able to extend the lifecycle of their desktops and laptops thanks to the greater reliability of modern systems and because software has not been driving the need for ever greater performance as much as it used to in the past. Consequently, businesses have been refreshing systems less frequently.

The growing maturity of mobile devices has in the meantime opened up new possibilities. Easy to tote around and often with an always-on wireless connection, they have enabled workers to receive email and messages even while traveling, and led to the development of new applications and services, allowing mobile sales staff to conduct transactions while on the move, for example.

But are mobile devices really useful for much else other than email and messaging? Their tiny screens and limited processing power compared to a PC would seem to limit what can be accomplished with a smartphone, for example. A giveaway is the fact that the majority of mobile workers continue to carry a laptop with them on business trips in addition to having their smartphone.

The important thing to remember is that one size does not fit all use cases, and while you would not choose a mobile device for development work or engineering, there are key scenarios and business tasks where mobility wins out.

“The mobile device has evolved into an important two-way portal from which employees are increasingly interacting with a variety of different business apps and workflows,” commented Holtby.

“Furthermore, data and insights that can be gathered from smart devices – such as geolocation, for example – will increasingly be leveraged in improving and better contextualising services being delivered to employees, and in optimizing workflows that employees interact with,” he added.

However, all of this has led to a new set of issues for the corporate IT department. Most mobile devices are based on platforms such as Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android rather than Windows, and this means having to support and manage a broader range of platforms than just a fleet of desktops and laptops.

This inevitably brings the downside of extra expense at a time when IT budgets are already constrained, and so the temptation will be to restrict the number of devices and platforms that employees are permitted to use for work-related activities.

“Balancing ever-evolving employee demands with the need to minimize business risk is undoubtedly a key challenge for modern organizations. Recent history has shown us that just saying ‘no, you can’t do this’ or ‘no, you can’t use that device or app’ is far from a desirable approach,” said Holtby.

Even Microsoft belatedly recognized that the corporate workplace is now a multi-platform environment, and a few years ago started offering mobile versions of its Office productivity applications for Apple iOS devices and the Android platform, in addition to Windows.

Holtby asserts that IT needs to better engage at the business level, which will help it evolve into a department that is business enabling, well positioned to recognize evolving business needs and be able to act upon them quickly and in an appropriate fashion.

 

Getting a unified overview of all endpoints

Nevertheless, organizations need to set some limits, especially where it comes to employees accessing or storing corporate data on mobile devices. This can only realistically be achieved through policies enforced through the use of some mobile management platform, such as Microsoft Intune or VMware AirWatch.

Microsoft’s Intune is a hosted device management service that integrates with Azure Active Directory so that an employee’s mobile devices can be linked with their Active Directory profile. Both it and VMware AirWatch support iOS and Android devices, as well as Windows laptops.

This latter detail is important, as moving towards a more coherent and unified model for managing all of the devices that employees use to carry out day to day tasks will ultimately make it easier to ensure that applications and data are kept secure.

“It is important to explore how this evolving and diverse endpoint estate can be managed and supported in a more unified fashion. From there, and as approaches mature, enterprises can then look to how mobility can help transform workflows and more traditional business operations,” Holtby commented.

All of this means that the workplace has become more diverse over the past several years and looks set to continue to do so, with smartphones and tablets being used alongside the more traditional desktop and laptop computers.

Business users should not expect the PC to disappear anytime soon. While shipments are not likely to return to their pre-smartphone heights, Windows 10 appears to have infused new demand for laptops among large enterprise customers, while there remains a market for desktop systems among some customers.

In fact, IDC stated in a report that the commercial market is just beginning a replacement cycle that should drive growth in business PCs. This is expected to come largely in demand for thin and light form factors or 2-in-1 devices that can be used as both a touch-screen tablet and a keyboard-driven laptop, such as Microsoft’s Surface models.

Meanwhile, Intel is currently betting that there will be a demand for thinner, lighter but more powerful mobile platforms, and recently announced a new processor that will deliver this by integrating a semi-custom graphics chip from AMD alongside its own Core chip.

Other vendors are also exploring new ways of delivering PC-like capabilities in new ways: Microsoft has been collaborating with Qualcomm to enable a new generation of lightweight ARM-powered Windows devices, and one British firm is even trying to breathe new life into the PDA with a product called Gemini, which puts a device with the power of a PC into a jacket pocket.

For a platform that is supposed to be dead, the PC is showing remarkable resilience. Perhaps this owes as much to the fact that a device with a big screen and full-size keyboard sits at the sweet spot for usability as anything else.

Windows is still going strong as an endpoint platform with about 90 percent of the market, according to figures from NetMarketShare, but whatever software it runs, it seems there will always be a need for a system that looks like a PC and does everything the PC is capable of.

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Dan Robinson

Dan Robinson has over 20 years of experience as an IT journalist, covering everything from smartphones to IBM mainframes and supercomputers as well as the Windows PC industry. Based in the UK, Dan has a background in electronics and a BSc Hons in Information Technology.

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