Recession extends hardware life cycles

Change may be permanent for employees, users

The recession may have accelerated the tendency of companies to extend the life cycles of PCs, laptops and servers, and that change may become permanent.

Two recent surveys point to changes in hardware buying trends. In one, IT decision-makers at nearly 1,100 companies were asked what IT product they put off buying this year, and the top item on the list was PCs, cited by 49% of the respondents. The survey was conducted on behalf of hardware and systems vendor CDW by an independent polling firm, Richard Day Research.

In the CDW survey, that data completely flips around for next year, with 55% of the respondents ranking PCs as their top buying priority.

The results of the CDW survey indicate that some of the hardware buying next year may be intended to fulfill pent-up demand, but they also reveal new flexibility in enterprise purchasing decisions. CDW didn't have hard data on corporate PC refresh cycles, but based on anecdotal feedback it concluded that refresh cycles had been expanded -- even though new PCs are high on CIOs' wish lists for next year.

"The recession is teaching a lot of CFOs that the life cycle for this hardware can be longer than what the IT people have said in the past," said Bob Houghton, president of Redemtech, a Columbus, Ohio-based company that refurbishes, resells and redeploys several million cast-off PCs and servers annually.

Houghton said he's been seeing a trend toward longer hardware life cycles for a number of years, but he notes that the recession has accelerated it. His firm conducted its own independent, general market survey of 179 companies, not all of whom are necessarily Redemtech customers.

The survey dismantles the notion that laptops, in particular, are more likely to be replaced every three years.

More than 40% of the respondents said that they replace their laptops every three years, more than 30% said they do it every four years, and about 20% said that they hold on to their laptops for five years or more.

Asked about desktop PCs, 39% of the respondents said they keep such systems for four years, and just over 30% said they keep them for five years or more. As for servers, 60.5% said they use such machines for more than five years.

Redemtech works to extend the life of computer hardware by refurbishing equipment, said Houghton, who attributed the four- and five-plus-year life cycles to the fact that hardware quality has improved over the years.

Raphael Vasquez, an analyst at Gartner, said he believes the recession has been factor in extending PC lifetimes both in the professional market and among home users.

Vasquez said Gartner expects spending on PCs to pick up in the next two years because machines are getting older and older, and because support for Microsoft Windows XP is expiring.

"I don't think there's a question about whether or not life cycles are lengthening," Vasquez said in an e-mail response to questions. "I think there's a pretty strong case that they are. The question now is, are they lengthening because of the recession? Because people choose to buy media tablets? Or because existing mobile PCs are now simply being used less because of alternative platforms (like media tablets [and] smartphones)?"

John Spooner, an analyst at Technology Business Research, said he believes users are extending the life cycles of their laptops from three years to four and even five years. The idea of a three-year life cycle for laptops is ending, and the recession may have helped do away with it for good, he said. Many more companies are thinking about four-year life cycles. "The quality of the hardware is good enough," Spooner said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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