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CIOs: Is a PC refresh really necessary?

IT departments are preparing to migrate off Windows 7. Manufacturers are ready with a range of new PCs at this year's CES

In 2017, IT departments will need to come to terms with ageing Windows 7 desktop PCs and the dilemma of whether to invest in another major PC refresh or try something else.

The PC market has been in decline for several years as consumers buy ever-advancing tablets and smartphones, which are fully capable of handling a fair amount of their computing needs.

According to analyst Gartner, worldwide combined shipments of PCs, tablets, ultramobiles and mobile phones are projected to remain flat in 2017.

This has not stopped manufacturers at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas from attempting to reinvent PC hardware.

For instance, HP introduced the EliteBook x360, which, according to the suppler, offers battery life of 16.5 hours and meets US military standards for toughness.

It has also been designed for collaboration. It is a certified Skype for Business device and offers integrated conferencing hotkeys to enable users to screen share, mute and unmute, and answer and end calls directly from the keyboard. HP said the microphone and speakers on the PC are tuned not only for music, but for the spoken word.

Rival Lenovo introduced the 2017 ThinkPad X1 Carbon at CES, which the company claims is the lightest 14in business laptop on the market. The new version offers up to 15 hours of battery life, three Thunderbolt ports and the option of WiGig connectivity, while Toshiba showed its new Portégé A30-D laptop, which also has a claimed battery life of 15 hours together with a host of connectivity ports.

Chip improvements

New PCs benefit from Moore’s Law and functionality built into the latest generation of microprocessor technology. For instance, the 7th Generation Intel Core vPro processor family offers hardware assisted multifactor authentication.

One example of where this could be deployed is with Dropbox’s new multifactor integration. This means users signing into the Dropbox website will be able to take advantage of security keys built into newer Intel Core processors.

“This collaboration makes security more convenient and accessible for Dropbox users on Intel PCs built with our 7th Generation Core processors,” said Rick Echevarria, vice-president of Intel’s software and services group and general manager of its platforms security division.

Updated hardware not compelling enough

The PC makers have effectively updated their products with Intel’s latest microprocessor to boost performance and battery life. But it is unlikely these features alone will be enough to convince cash-strapped IT departments to buy the latest laptops.

There were nearly seven billion phones, tablets and PCs in use in the world by the end of 2016. However, Gartner does not expect any growth in shipments of traditional devices until 2018, when a small increase in ultramobiles and mobile phone shipments is expected.

“Consumers have fewer reasons to upgrade or buy traditional devices,” said Ranjit Atwal, research director at Gartner. “They are seeking fresher experiences and applications in emerging categories such as head-mounted displays (HMDs), virtual personal assistant (VPA) speakers and wearables.”

According to Gartner, the PC market will benefit from a replacement cycle towards the end of 2017, returning to growth in 2018. The analyst firm believes that increasingly attractive premium ultramobile prices and functionality will entice buyers as traditional PC sales continue to decline.

The challenge for CIOs is that while the features are all nice to have, they do not truly make the PC something that can deliver measurable business value. Business leaders may well question why the PC estate is being updated when many people either bring their own devices to work, or prefer to use iOS or Android tablet devices.

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Windows applications are the mainstay of desktop IT, but corporates are increasingly turning to software as a service (SaaS), delivered as mobile apps or browser-based software. Cloud-based software has meant applications can lean on powerful servers to do the heavy lifting. This means devices do not need to be as powerful from a computational perspective. From a user’s perspective, the applications can be accessed using a thin client device.

Thin client computing, where the processing work is run on the server, gives IT departments a way to break out of the PC upgrade cycle. “Originally, thin client computing was about simplicity of management and cost reduction. But over the years, the cost savings didn’t quite play out as devices were still relatively expensive,” Citrix CEO Kirill Tatarinov told Computer Weekly in December 2016.

Now, the economics have changed. “For the first time in history, you can get a thin client device for under $100 through a Raspberry Pi,” said Tatarinov.

While it is an option, it remains to be seen whether CIOs will replace desktop PCs with thin clients. On the other hand, as CES has shown, PC manufacturers are focusing on areas such as collaboration, offering features such as Skype for Business integration, to turn the PC into something that is more than just a device to run corporate Windows applications.

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