Reports of the impending death of the desktop PC may have been greatly exaggerated. In fact, although the market has been in decline for some time, it continues to show signs of life and remains a respectable distance from its deathbed.
Or so Gartner has confirmed. Ranjit Atwal, research director for the global forecasting team at Gartner, says the desktop is far from obsolete and will remain an important part of the PC mix for a long time to come.
"It came down last year, and this year we expect it to be down three or four per cent as well," he says. "But they will still be around – against a larger volume of notebooks, laptops and tablets."
Desktop PCs, he says, will remain popular in low-mobility environments for the foreseeable future, especially where the choice won't necessarily fall on a thin client option – which might be preferred when centralisation is chosen for security reasons.
"So there will still need to be several options for organisations to look at," Atwal says. "But the one-size-fits-all PC that created the computing environment is now giving way to a more segmented environment."
Gartner's preliminary figures for Q1 demonstrated the steepest decline in PC shipment terms ever, overall only matching PC volumes in Q2 of 2009. Worldwide, this meant 79.2 million PCs were sold in Q1, down 11.2 per cent from the same quarter a year ago.
All regions showed a decrease in shipments, with the EMEA region experiencing the steepest decline in its third consecutive quarter of worldwide PC market decline as consumption continues to shift to other connected devices, according to the research giant.
Now there are nine segments to consider when it comes to a main computing device – three mobile segments, three tablet segments and three PC segments.
Atwal says desktop PCs now represent about 35 per cent of the global PC market in volume terms. "That's shrinking by about 10 per cent a year," he says.
"On the consumer side, they're moving to smartphones and tablets. The desktop kind of becomes, especially if it has a touchscreen, a shared central computing device in the home where you keep your personal information; for example for home storage and the home server."
All-in-One (AiO) devices represent an area of sales opportunity, though, as do high-end devices targeting gamers and other users that require better specced machines, although pockets of demand for low-end desktops will remain as well.
Margaret Franco, executive director of end user computing at Dell, agrees with much of Gartner's analysis.
"It has been declining over time, yes. But you have to put that into context of the overall computing market. What's happening is really a proliferation of computing devices available to end users and companies.
"Desktop computing – or stationary computing, as we call it – is a core use case that will continue to be there, alongside mobile use cases and thin client use cases. And as we look at computing in general, we factor in what new form factors like tablets are doing, which are growing pretty healthily at the moment."
Dell – currently number four in overall PC shipments across EMEA – aims to provide a broad range of computing offerings that would fit with the range of use cases, and does so by considering what users want, and what they want to do, as well as what they want to use in terms of applications, Franco says.
"The AiO form factor is driving quite a bit of demand in desktops," she notes. "For example, in hospitals. That's a sector that is driving quite a bit of demand for the desktop."
Franco points to Dell's OptiPlex range as an example of an AiO proving popular with a range of customers in different vertical markets. For those that want a sleek, consumer-like machine, the XPS line is doing well.
A centralised information repository that can be kept more secure might be required. And the OEM market is another area of expansion.
For example, medical applications are increasingly facilitated by a desktop embedded into or integrated with healthcare or medical technologies such as scanners or analysis equipment. A desktop computer that is small enough yet has the power and functionality required can be inserted into other hardware or integrated with other management interfaces.
Financial services is another arena where the desktop PC still holds its own, even though many are also choosing the thin client option. People are in fact still replacing older desktops with new desktop PCs – not everyone is choosing a tablet, a smartphone or even a laptop, Franco confirms.
Management technologies like Intel vPro and security offerings like Dell Data Protection file-level encryption help create the right mix for the platform and use case, she adds.
"And we aim to exploit these marketplaces by combining them [desktops] with professional services and application development."
Andrew Barrow (pictured, right), EMEA client product leader at Lenovo, currently in the number three spot in EMEA according to Gartner figures, has a similar perspective on the possibilities that remain for desktop sales.
Lenovo is continuing to invest in its desktop portfolio, and resellers can also profitably continue to grow the category in certain ways, he says.
"We certainly see it still as a big opportunity," he asserts. "And today we have more flexibility in what a desktop can look like."
Desktops are getting smaller, for example. Barrow says Lenovo's Tiny range in particular is creating a buzz around it in both the consumer and the commercial spaces, with one model shown to great effect on The Gadget Show in recent months.
They're not a thin client and they're not a laptop or a tablet – they're a fully featured PC in a smaller desktop-friendly form factor, reflecting the fact that all too many offices now find space at a premium.
AiOs are certainly an important focal point for desktop sales, he agrees, particularly with that increasingly important touch functionality.
"So we've got a really broad portfolio and currently lots of people are looking at their refresh cycle, and looking at another desktop."
A smaller, more powerful – even portable, if not exactly mobile – desktop PC is sometimes able to convince today's cautious buyers to put their hands in their pockets once again and restart that refresh cycle, he suggests.
On the other hand, some pundits have suggested that Windows 8 is failing to kickstart PC sales, but Barrow says he has found the new mobile Microsoft OS excellent – as long as you have a touchscreen device.
"I think that if you don't have a touch-enabled device, you can struggle to understand the shortcuts and how to close things. But on my tablet it's a very good experience."
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