As tablet computers look set to dominate the computing market in the coming year, driving PC makers to make laptops more mobile, what does the future holds for the corporate laptop?
According to research firm, iSuppli, global PC shipments in 2011 are forecast to rise by 12.5% from 2010. Sales of tablet computers, in comparison, will surge by a mighty 198% in 2011.
Analyst firm Gartner, says slow growth in PC sales this year were caused by delayed purchases by businesses and competition from tablet computers.
"Undoubtedly consumers and businesses are delaying PC purchases as device choice broadens," says Ranjit Atwal, research director at Gartner.
But what are PC makers doing to convince IT departments with leftover budgets to spend on laptops over tablets?
Unveiling the new Macbook Air last week, Apple said it was the first of a new generation of lighter and smaller notebooks, which will replace mechanical hard discs and optical drives with internet services and solid state flash storage for increased speed and reliability.
Enterprise models are following the same trend. Toshiba's latest laptop is "ultra-mobile", says the manufacturer. The Portégé R700 is claimed by the PC maker to be "Europe's thinnest, lightest, full-function laptop, providing uncompromised mobile computing for business users".
James Jones, Dell client solutions marketing manager, says Dell's laptops have also been reinvented to meet demands from the mobile market. Products such as its Latitude E laptops are now thinner, lighter, have better battery life and are more ergonomic.
"The delta between desktop and mobile devices has been crossed now. We are selling more mobile than fixed desktops. Over the next four years, we will see a dramatic increase in mobility and a 70/30 split between mobile devices and desktops," he says.
Value for money
But slimmer and lighter does not necessarily mean better for IT departments. "When PC makers are making cases and screens slimmer, they need more robust materials, which adds to the price. There is a trade-off there," says Richard Edwards, principal analyst at Ovum.
Simon Yates, HP UK and Ireland personal systems group category manager, agrees. "We are seeing trends for 'thin and light' products in the commercial space, but the big trend is value. Customers - both SMBs and enterprise - are demanding the best overall option, not simply best specification.
"Demands are different and more weighted to longer lifecycle and stability. With budget constraints, value within that product choice is even more important," he says.
Rather than spend on slimmer laptops, Ken Chan, senior product manager for B2B laptops at Toshiba, urges IT managers to spend leftover budgets on "gaining a greater understanding of the possibilities available with cloud computing".
Chan says security and centralised system management are the main areas of concern being voiced by customers, with greater demand for support from system managers against the potential loss of information and the need to support a widespread workforce.
This will drive a change in laptop ownership , says Ranjit Atwal, research director at Gartner. "Rather than a set desktop, notebooks won't be owned by organisations, they will be seen as a burden and organisations will look how to offset that to the user. Companies used to own cars and they don't anymore. Driven by the consumerisation of IT, organisations are trying to reduce overheads and changing who owns what. We have seen the early semblance with iPads," he says.
Ultimately, Atwal predicts, "The PC market will end up in fragmentation across multiple users who want to do different things with computing capabilities."
Laptops are slimming down in a bid to compete with mobile devices and mobile workforces. As new corporate laptop models from HP, Toshiba and Dell offer better battery life and lighter hardware, PC makers are also looking to the cloud to provide a virtual desktop across any employee device, perhaps driving organisations to scrap laptop ownership altogether - just like the company car.
Four key considerations for IT departments with leftover budgets
IT should look to invest in laptop and notebook PCs they can deploy efficiently. Intel is continuing to push VPro technology on corporate laptops in order to address issues of deployment, rebuilding and tracking.
Organisations need to be able to manage data and provide users with latitude about what they can install on devices. Cisco and Microsoft have network defence technologies, such as Self-defending Network and Network Access Protection (NAP), which work in conjunction to ensure security is maintained while in the field and when brought into the corporate network.
The battery tends to bulk up laptops. Newer offerings are energy-efficient and require smaller batteries in smaller form factors and lightweight devices, but they need more robust materials, which add to the price. There's a trade-off there.
Ovum is starting to see virtualisation in the laptop and desktop market. Intel's VTX offers compelling opportunities for the sophisticated user to be flexible. Microsoft XP virtualisation required technology in order to work. Microsoft has modified virtualisation in Windows 7 after feedback from the field to take away the requirement for VTX technology, which few desktops had.
Source: Richard Edwards, principal analyst at Ovum