Desktop PCs remain vital, despite laptop surge

Traditional PCs still offer some advantages over notebooks

With laptop shipments gaining momentum over the past few years the question arises: Are desktops on the verge of being banished from the enterprise?

Desktops remain the primary computers of "task workers", which includes clerks, accountants, programmers and others who are bound to their desks, with laptops becoming the primary computer in use for many other enterprise employees.

Enterprise use of laptops has exploded as they become affordable and companies seek to provide greater mobility to workers, while also increasing productivity. Laptops allow employees to telecommute or work on the road, and can make it easier for salespeople and executives to close deals. Laptops also reduce the need to buy separate monitors and other peripherals.

Laptop shipments increased by about 60 percent between 2006 and 2008, while desktop PC shipments flattened during the same period, according to Gartner. Toshiba sensed the laptop trend as early as 2001, when it stopped selling desktops and focused on selling mobile products and servers.

Yet, that doesn't mean doom and gloom for desktops, says George Shiffler, principal analyst at Gartner Dataquest. There will be a core of desktop users, including programmers who need the speed of a desktop. Desktops will also remain a tool for task workers, as companies look to secure data and reduce maintenance costs, analysts say.

"Why give a laptop to somebody working in a call centre?" Shiffler asks. Such workers do not need laptops, which are more expensive and generally require more maintenance, or even a top-line desktop all they need is a basic desktop.

Laptops are also more vulnerable to theft, analysts say. Stolen laptops could cost companies an average of US$49,246, with computer costs and the value of data included, according to a study released in April by Ponemon Institute.

While desktop PCs account for the bulk of personal computers sold to enterprises, the gap in laptop sales to enterprises is closing. Of 168 million PCs sold worldwide to professional organisations in 2008, about 95 million were desktops and 73 million were laptops. That's compared to 94.6 million desktops and 47.3 million laptops that shipped in 2006.

Concerns about data integrity triggered Guidance, a web software provider, to choose a majority of desktops for its hardware infrastructure. The company of 50 employees has a mix of 80% desktops and 20% laptops.

"Because desktops are stationary, they have a lot of advantages," said Jon Provisor, chief technology officer at Guidance. Desktop maintenance is easier for tasks such as remote security scans and software patches, Provisor says. Desktops are also always connected to the network, which makes it easier to manage them remotely.

General maintenance is difficult for laptops on the road, while users may load rogue software that introduces malware into the network, he says. "[Laptops] aggregate a whole bunch of software like plug-ins for Facebook or images or video which end up corrupting the system drive. The desktop is a business tool that is simpler and easier to retain," Provisor says.

Steve Rausch, director of information services at Gibson General Hospital in Indiana, agreed, saying desktops are better suited for office tasks like payroll management. The hospital has deployed desktops for employees such as clerks, who are not mobile.

Security breaches worry Rausch the most, as it's hard to track information from a stolen laptop. "Then we have to tell all our customers that there's a potential that your Social Security number or financial information have been stolen. That's a black eye for us," he says.

Replacing laptops also could be expensive compared to desktops, Rausch says. Desktops have a lifespan of about five years, as opposed to three years for a laptop, Rausch says.

Laptop components and batteries also need to be continuously replaced, Provisor says. "From our perspective, desktops are here to stay."

There is a growing interest in devices like virtual desktops and thin clients, which are disk-less terminals that pull resources like storage and memory from central PCs such as servers, says Roger Kay, an analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates. These small devices have fewer components, consume less power and use less space than traditional minitowers, which could save enterprises money.

For example, Guidance has placed orders for Hewlett-Packard's Compaq dc7900, a small desktop without a power supply that combines components from a laptop and desktop in one box. Rausch is considering disk-less thin clients for use in Gibson General Hospital rooms to take down patient data. Such thin clients access data from servers rather than storing it in memory.

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