Windows PCs and enterprise: Don't expect a break-up

Despite recent declines in PC sales, research from Spiceworks shows most companies remain tied in tightly with the Microsoft/Windows ecosystem.

Credit: Simon Bisson

Old-school PCs may be déclassé, relegated by pronouncements of technology Trotskyites to the dustbin of history because smartphones and tablets and wearables and who knows what else, have or will soon take their place.

Not in corporations, they won't.

PCs still lord it there, said Spiceworks, an online community and resource for IT professionals and the vendors trying to reach them.

"It turns out desktops still rule in the workplace ... and it's not even close," wrote Peter Tsai, a senior technology analyst. According to a Spiceworks survey conducted in July, 60% of the employees in organizations represented by 998 IT professionals in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. relied on a desktop PC as their primary computing device.

That form factor has been the personal computer default since at least 1983, when Time magazine made it the "Machine of the Year."

The next largest group - 27% - used a laptop, according to Spiceworks' survey. The remaining 13% was divvied up between thin clients (5%), tablets (3%), smartphones (2%) and the latest rage, the 2-in-1s that exhibit characteristics of both tablet and laptop. Just 1% of employees used one of the last, the best-known example of which is Microsoft's Surface Pro.

Although the poll's result stood in stark contrast to the years-old theme that PCs are a dead end -- as evidenced by a multi-year decline in shipments reported by the likes of IDC and Gartner -- they simultaneously bolster those research firms' conclusion that corporate purchases, as well as the beginnings of a movement to shift to a PC-as-a-service model, have kept the industry afloat.

Spiceworks' survey showed that businesses remain not only reliant now on the personal computer, but that they are unlikely to change. Enterprise IT professionals are, to put it plain, unimpressed with the concept of leaning on non-PC devices.

More than half of those polled said that they believe most workers would never use a mobile device as their primary device. Just 21% agree that a majority of employees would consider a mobile device their preferred tool by 2023.

PC input methods - and the productivity advantages they provide over mobile - remain the reasons why IT managers see the continuing dominance of desktops and notebooks. The latter, however, will get an increasing slice of the spending pie: Nearly half of the IT pros said their firms would boost spending on laptops, while just a quarter said the same for desktops.

"While it's true desktop PCs will likely become less prevalent in the future, perhaps giving way to laptops, usability challenges when it comes to key business tasks will prevent tablets and smartphones from taking over in the workplace," said Spiceworks' Tsai. "While the consumer market might gravitate toward flashy new features and stylish devices, organizations primarily want reliable tools that empower users ... without breaking the bank."

Reliability was, in fact, the top vote getter when Spiceworks asked IT professionals what drove them to choose a device vendor, collecting an almost-unanimous 87%. Performance, which came in No. 2, and security, at No. 3, received 68% and 62%, respectively. Cost was down at No. 4, with 54%, while style was dead last, with a puny 4% saying it was important.

Because Dell was considered the most reliable PC maker - 34% associated "reliability" with the Texas company, more than either HP (28%) or Lenovo (23%) - it wasn't a surprise that Dell scored highest among desktop and notebook vendors when IT people were asked of their plans. Twenty-five percent of those who spelled out their purchasing expectations for Dell said they were going to boost spending, a number significantly higher than for other OEMs (original equipment manufacturers). Second-place HP and third-place Microsoft, for example, garnered 17% and 15% for increased spending.

Speaking of Microsoft, the Redmond, Wash. company has to be happy with what Spiceworks' survey implied. And not because it would like to sell more Surface hardware to the enterprise.

Although the firm doesn't say it out loud, it has aggressively shifted even more toward the enterprise, where it can be assured of revenue from the decades-old Windows ecosystem for what will probably be decades to come. Microsoft may have lost the biggest consumer battle since the origin of the personal computer - its forays into mobile devices, even into mobile operating systems, have been disastrous - but it retains enormous territories in the enterprise, from the client (Windows) and management (Intune, SCCM) to cloud-based computing (Azure) and its latest push for more conquests and revenue, security (Advanced Threat Protection, and a host of other services).

Microsoft hasn't demonstrated the kind of expertise on non-PC platforms that it has honed on personal computers since Bill Gates and Paul Allen were kids. It's bailed from smartphones, has had little impact in tablets -- most Surface 2-in-1s are more 1-in-1s, used as laptops almost exclusively -- and it's playing catch-up with Google's Chrome OS in the latest thin client battle. But as long as enterprises prefer PCs, and keep buying them, Microsoft knows its place there is safe, sound and solvent.

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