The desktop -- time to say goodbye?

The desktop -- time to say goodbye?

When Paul Scheib at Boston's Children's Hospital goes shopping for PCs, his choice is more often a desktop than a notebook.

Despite price drops in recent years, desktop computers are still less expensive than notebooks. It's also easier to lock down ports on stationary desktops to prevent users from downloading sensitive information onto CD-ROMs or USB memory sticks. Of 5,400 PCs in use at the hospital, only about 600 are notebook computers -- and most of those travel only within the halls of the hospital secured to mobile carts.

"Desktops are the default choice" except when there is a specific need for mobility," says Scheib, director of the information services department and chief information security officer at the hospital.

But Scheib is one of a shrinking breed. As the price for a notebook computer with a late-model processor, 17-inch screen and large hard drive comes closer to that of comparably-equipped desktops, notebooks are becoming the default choice for many companies. With a notebook and widely available wireless Internet access, employees can work full-time from home (reducing the need for expensive office space), work more hours for the same pay or keep working when a disaster makes it impossible to reach the office.

While worldwide PC shipments are expected to grow 12.2 percent this year, portable PC volumes are expected to grow 28 percent, according to industry analyst firm International Data (IDC). Bob O'Donnell, IDC's program vice president for clients and displays, predicts notebooks will make up more than half of all PC shipments in the U.S. by the third quarter of this year, and he expects the crossover to notebooks to happen worldwide in 2010. Notebooks began outselling desktops in the fourth quarter of last year in Western Europe, he says, and have outsold desktops in Japan for years, he says.

O'Donnell expects "portable PC shipments to maintain double digit growth rates for the next few years as demand for mobility continues to shift new buyers from desktops to notebooks."

The trend toward notebooks is greatest in the weathiest, most developed countries where both corporate and consumer customers can afford the US$200-$300 premium for a notebook that is comparably equipped to a desktop. On the consumer side, many families replace an older desktop with one or more notebooks, says O'Donnell. The fact that many colleges require students to purchase notebooks also drives this trend.

While many well-equipped notebooks are available for under $1,000, they often require the purchase of external peripherals such as an external screen or keyboard to make the notebook more comfortable while used in an office, points out Tom Tobul, executive director of marketing for the emerging products business unit at Lenovo Group.

Then there's the fact, that notebooks often must be replaced every three years due to the wear and tear they suffer, compared with four to five year for desktops, he says. Roger Kay, president of market researcher Endpoint Technologies Associates, points out that the more modular design of desktops makes them easier and less expensive to repair.

Observers differ on how much the price premium for notebooks can continue to shrink. Kay predicts it will reach "nearly zero" as engineers, looking to reduce the power used by and the heat generated by desktops, begin using more notebook components such as power-saving processors. He also says that while it may cost more to design smaller notebook parts, once in production they can cost less than their desktop components because they are smaller and use less raw materials.

Desktop sweet spots

Desktops are still the factor of choice in poorer countries where price is more critical and environmental conditions such as dust, heat and humidity can be too tough for notebooks. Tobul says more than 70 percent of Lenovo's sales in developing countries such as China and India are desktops. For less than $200, "I can put a very competitive system together in emerging markets. That really gets quite a bit below the entry notebook" price, he says.

Desktops often make the most sense where, as at Children's Hospital, multiple employees share the same system from a fixed location. They are also the easiest, and least expensive, to upgrade with fast, power-hungry components, such as quad-core chips, 15,000 RPM hard drives and high-end graphics cards needed for high-end design or analytical applications (not to mention games, in the consumer market.)

A desktop system can also be more easily configured for a user's comfort, says Kay, with separate keyboards and screens which can be moved to positions where they won't cause muscle or eye strain. Employees working "at a computer all day long are not going to want to be working at a notebook," he says.

And while notebooks are one way to encourage after-hours work or to assure business continues after a disaster, Tobul says some companies are instead considering virtualizing users' home desktop PCs into two operating environments. One would be for regular personal use; the second would use a Virtual Private Network or thin-client computing environment for secure access to the enterprise network.

Even when security concerns don't rule out use of a notebook, they're requiring the use of more security measures. "We're seeing a lot more emphasis on hardware security" in the form of fingerprint readers to scan users before allowing them to log into a system, says O'Donnell.

Smaller, lighter, cheaper

A number of vendors are considering "ultra-portable" devices with screens as small as 5 inches to 7 inches, which can still run the familiar Windows operating system and provide a decent keyboard for typing. But so far they are only a small part of the market. Ann Avery, manager of North American Commercial Notebook Product Marketing for Hewlett-Packard, says HP's "Ultra Light" notebooks account for less than 10 percent of its overall notebook sales. But Kay predicted that such systems will become a "substantial category" in the market - "like a second mobile PC" users will take on the road when they don't need a higher-end notebook PC.

Avery also sees growing integration of WIMAX, or wide-area wireless broadband capabilities, into notebook computers - an option between 10 percent to 15 percent of HP customers are already buying.

Despite years of marketing and development work by Microsoft and major notebook OEMs, few observers predicted rapid growth for tablet computers, whose touch screens allow them to be used for text entry using handwriting as well as keyboards. Kay predicted tablet functionality "will become kind of a feature of the notebook market" which vendors can provide simply by adding a touch-screen to a regular notebook.

But no matter how small, light, inexpensive and powerful notebooks become, there will always be a segment of the market that will choose desktops over notebooks. Even so, Kay predicts it will be five to seven years before only "the die-hard desktop users are left."

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