Demise of the desktop (IT – 25th June 2010)

As an increasingly rare sight on retailers’ shelves, in people’s homes and even around the office, it is clear that the desktop computer is dying. So what is driving the demise of this once ever-present machine and does it have any hope of survival?

Once expensive and unwieldy, the laptop is now the dominant player in the computer landscape.

According to both manufacturers and retailers this is because of two distinct trends which, between them, are working to squeeze out the desktop – ever-improving miniaturised technology and changing customer behaviour.

“The price points [on notebooks] have come way down and the market has caught up a lot with desktops in terms of performance,” said Aaron McKenna, country manager for online retailer Komplett.ie.

Just a few years ago, money spent on a laptop would give users far less power than the same amount spent on a desktop. However, cheaper and smaller components mean this gulf has all but disappeared at consumer levels.

Lisa Holmes, client field product manager for Dell’s commercial division, echoes this, saying the price gap that used to exist between laptops and desktops is now all but gone.

“You can definitely get a fairly mainstream laptop that would be quite close to the desktop in terms of spec and performance now. They’re fairly comparable.”

As a result, laptops have become an obvious fit, particularly for college students and professionals, especially as battery capacity and mobile broadband access continues to improve.

However, for the standard household the creep of the computer into the living room has also modified what users are looking for. A desktop, which requires the computer itself, a monitor, keyboard, mouse, desk and chair in order to be functional, is less appealing and more obtrusive than a simple laptop.

“When people buy something now, they go for a laptop so they can sit on the couch and use it,” said Holmes. “This is especially true for those living in an apartment as space is an issue and desktop requires a lot of that.”

All of this has combined to create a market hugely skewed in favour of laptops. HP, the biggest computer manufacturer in the world, currently sees 79 per cent of its sales going on notebooks in the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Asia) region. Ireland trumps that average with 86 per cent of HP machines sold here being portables.

Things are more balanced on the commercial side, however, where HP records a near-50/50 split in EMEA. Interestingly, Ireland is lagging behind here, with a 58-42 per cent split in favour of desktops.

“We’re slower to move on the commercial side and faster on the consumer side,” says Stephen McDonald, head of corporate, enterprise and public sectors at HP.

“Commercial would be more conservative for a number of reasons and no organisations within the public sector have moved whole-scale to mobile computing yet which has a huge effect in the island of Ireland.”

However, while desktops lack mobility, they do retain one crucial selling point over notebooks – their ability to be easily tweaked and upgraded. This has kept desktops as the tool of choice for so-called “power users”, be they hardcore gamers or professional designers.

“Power users is where the desktop still thrives and this is where the laptop still has not caught up,” McKenna says. “Notebooks are not as customisable; with a desktop you can change your graphics card or upgrade the processor and so on. With a laptop, you can change your memory and hard drive but that is about it.”

Not only are they less customisable, gaming laptops also suffer still from the large price differential against desktops that has been all but eliminated at the lower end.

The other deficiency in this market is that the main benefit of the laptop over a desktop – its mobility – is also wiped out.

“You can buy gaming laptops from Dell and so on, but they’re bulky and they’re heavy to carry around,” said Mr McKenna.

So what is the desktop’s fate? McDonald feels it does have a future, although as a far more niche machine than it was before.

“The likes of engineers, designers, broadcasters and so on – they will all stick with desktops for what they do,” he said. “In the consumer space, I cannot see the tower machines surviving though. What is happening now is a move towards the all-in-one devices that effectively look like a monitor with a keyboard and mouse attached.”

These types of machines – perhaps the most notable example of which is the Apple iMac – fit into the idea of an aesthetically pleasing and space-saving device that the traditional desktop is not.

There is also a growing market of media centre desktop machines – minuscule devices that are intended to act more as components for a HD television than as standalone computers. What these all have in common is that they are secondary computers, built and used for very specific tasks and not general browsing or working.

“These devices become more a media play rather than a desktop and that seems to be the direction the consumer desktop is going to,” said Mr McDonald. “Besides that, if you’re not looking for a pure ‘media play’ it’s very hard to see why you would buy a desktop over a notebook.”

DESKTOP COMPUTER ITS RISE AND FALL

1977 The Commodore PET is launched, the first all-in-one PC.

1981 The IBM personal computer is launched, setting the standard for PCs for many years with its separate keyboard, removable storage media and then-powerful 4.77MHz Intel processor.

1983 Epson’s HX-20 – recognised as the first true laptop – becomes available to the masses. It has a tiny screen, 32kB of RAM and a micro-cassette drive. Its battery gives up to 50 hours of usage.

1984 Apple releases its first Macintosh, the first big-selling computer to feature a mouse and graphical user interface – until then users needed to type strings of code to execute functions.

1995 Microsoft releases Windows 95, which becomes the operating system of choice for most desktops.

1998 Apple launches first iMac, reinvigorating the company and the all-in-one desktop in one go.

2007 Analysts at Forrester predict one billion PCs will be in use worldwide by the end of 2008.

2008 Laptop sales overtake desktops for the first time, according to researchers iSuppli.

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