Decline of the Desktop

The PC still rules the desktop -- but not for long. Laptops, once considered an expensive luxury, will soon claim the mantle as the personal computing platform of choice in the enterprise.

After almost a quarter of a century as the personal computing device of choice for business, the desktop PC is sliding off its pedestal. It has withstood assaults by technologies such as the Windows terminal, the Web and the network PC, but the mighty desktop has been humbled by user demand for the one thing it can't deliver -- mobility.

The laptop, once a corporate status symbol, has already gained acceptance as a mainstream device. Now laptops are poised for a corporate takeover as enterprise use widens beyond its traditional constituents: traveling executives and other "road warriors."

The movement away from desktops has been under way for some time. Business use of laptops has risen from an average of one in every five PC users in 1999 to one in three today. That figure will pass the 50% mark in the next few years, according to IDC.

"When I first joined this organization in 2000, laptops were a novelty," says Jerry Polcari, director of IT at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Inc. in Wellesley, Mass. At the time, just 2% to 3% of the health insurer's 1,800 PC users had laptops, he says. "Now it's 54%. Any part of the workforce that's mobile or that does any kind of analytical work has a laptop," he says.

Harvard Pilgrim is ahead of the curve, but not too far out front. For several years, laptop sales have grown at twice the rate of desktop sales. "Last year, for the first time, we had higher dollar sales of notebooks vs. desktops," says Robert Enochs, a ThinkPad product manager at Lenovo Group Ltd. IDC projects that by 2008 unit shipments of laptops will eclipse those of their beige-box cousins.

Laptop use is being driven by changes in work habits as much as by advances in technology. And work habits are changing because wireless technology is breaking the link between location and connectivity. Increasingly, users expect to carry laptops with them on the road, at home and into meetings across campus, using wireless connections to facilitate collaboration as well as to keep up with e-mail.

Wi-Fi is expanding the adoption of laptops at Kichler Lighting Group in Cleveland. "The ability to undock your laptop and take it from conference room to conference room without ever leaving the network is powerful," says director of infrastructure Mike Sink. Today's laptops are also more likely to make it through back-to-back meetings on a single charge, thanks to newer designs based on power-saving technologies such as Intel Corp.'s Pentium M processor. "A typical notebook today will easily last you three to four hours, and in many cases five hours," says Steve Kleynhans, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

Wireless LANs make persistent connectivity possible and relieve users of the hassle of fiddling with wires and searching for a network jack. "It used to be that users needed [a laptop] to work from home. Now it's more of a mobility thing around the building," says Paul Melnyk, director of the business technology group at Alias Systems Inc., a developer of 3-D graphics software in Toronto. Thirty percent of Alias' employees use laptops today, including 90% of its business staff. Melnyk expects overall laptop use to jump to 70% in the next three years as the company's developers embrace laptops.

"We have collaborative development spaces where people get together and do agile development work," Melnyk says. That collaborative model, which originated with software development, is spreading to other areas at Alias, he says.

The price/performance gap between laptops and desktops has narrowed considerably, led by a rapid decline in the cost of LCD panels, which account for 60% to 70% of a notebook's cost, according to Forrester Research Inc. Some low-end laptops now sell for well under $600. Forrester predicts that display costs will continue their fall through 2005.

Although the price gap has narrowed, desktops are still cheaper, especially for high-performance needs. Dell Inc. Vice President of Marketing Tim Mattox says the premium for laptops is about $300 to $500. However, laptop performance has improved to the point where a modestly priced unit has more than enough power to run typical office applications, says Cara Jiles, director of end-user experience at Cerner Corp. in Kansas City, Mo. "Even a low-end laptop is sufficient for most workers," she says. Two years ago, the health care automation technology vendor decided to move entirely to laptops. Now some 95% of Cerner's 6,200 employees use them.

Sink says the cost difference is still significant. He pays about $800 for a typical desktop PC with a 3-GHz processor, 1GB of RAM and a fast hard drive, excluding the monitor. A comparable ThinkPad laptop costs about $1,500. But the bottom-line difference isn't enough to dissuade him from buying laptops. "It's worth paying the premium for the mobility," he says.

Meanwhile, new workstation-class laptops are starting to gain acceptance in areas such as software development and computer-aided design. At Alias, Dell Precision M60 mobile workstations offer both performance and mobility. The machines support up to 2GB of RAM, a 128MB graphics card and a 15.4-in., 1,600-by-1,400-pixel UXGA screen that offers a wide viewing angle. Hewlett-Packard Co. and Lenovo have similar offerings. While most developers at Alias are still using desktops, Melnyk expects that to change as the group moves more heavily into collaborative development.

At Cerner, programmers have already made the transition. "For developers, it wasn't the power that was important; it was the disk speed," says Jiles. The availability of 7,200-rpm disk drives leveled the playing field, offering I/O comparable to that on desktops.

Designers at Kichler Lighting are taking advantage of the improved displays. "They can take [the laptops] home with them and view AutoCAD drawings," says Sink. The wide viewing angle of the screens is also helpful in meetings. "We have a lot of collaborative projects, and we have wireless throughout the building. People find it much easier to bring laptops with them," he says.

Today, about 35% of Kichler's computers are laptops, and Sink says that number is steadily increasing. For most users, the power is adequate. "For the applications we run, it's a small difference in performance," Sink says.

Alias doesn't see its developers running builds on laptops, however. "Currently, it's mainly an adjunct to the desktop," Melnyk says. In the future, he says, code will be checked out to developers for use on laptops and then checked back in for compiling on back-end cluster servers.

Laptop reliability has also improved. Cases, hinges and keyboards are more durable than they were in the past, vendors claim, while shock-resistant hard disk drives have made disk crashes less common. "The ability to knock them around a little bit more has improved," says Melnyk. His organization now keeps laptops for four to five years. "The units are just that good," he says.

Limits of Mobility

Despite the advantages, laptops don't fit everywhere and are unlikely to replace PCs entirely, IT professionals say. Administrative assistants, call center staffers and others who work from a fixed location and don't need to travel or telecommute are likely to remain on desktops.

Roger Kay, an analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates Inc. in Wayland, Mass., says he thinks 30% of the typical organization's employees are probably "bedrock desktop" users who need extra power or don't need mobility. In some industries, such as financial services, security concerns may dictate against the use of laptops, which can be lost or stolen, Kay says.

Polcari says Harvard Pilgrim has reached the saturation point for laptops, barring a change in the way it does business. That might just be in the cards. He says his company has bandied about the idea of moving to a telecommuting model for more than 600 staffers who handle claims adjudication and customer service functions. No decision has been made, but, he adds, "if that changed, [laptop use] would be at 90% or 95%."

At Sebaly Shillito & Dyer LPA in Dayton, Ohio, lawyers and paralegals are already on laptops, and less-mobile legal assistants and secretaries will be soon, says Brian Clayton, manager of the information systems group. Laptops allow support staffers to easily move from office to office to provide vacation coverage or to help with a project, he says.

As laptop use grows, the security implications also become more prominent. "Companies that are aggressive with notebooks are stepping back a bit because of concerns over security issues," says Gartner's Kleynhans. Clayton says his firm is looking into new HP notebooks with encryption and biometric authentication technology. The HP security system stores password data in the BIOS for added security. "It doesn't even let the drive spin up until the code is entered," he says.

Managing laptops is another potential problem. "Notebooks pose a whole bunch of challenges for the IT group. It's more expensive to manage something that moves around," Kleynhans says. But Jiles says notebooks are also easier to issue because there are fewer components to install. At Cerner, she says, "we turn around 2,000 PCs every two years, so the less you have to handle, the easier it becomes."

Regardless of the challenges, users agree that there's no going back. "Our culture would not be as strong as it is today if it were not for the mobility that laptops allow," says Jiles.

At Harvard Pilgrim, the presumption of mobility has changed how people go about doing their jobs. "Laptops have become part of the business landscape," Polcari says. "They are now a strategic platform."

To read Rob Mitchell's blog on this subject, and post your own comments on this issue, head to Mobility versus productivity.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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