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Desktop Computers, Once Declared Dead, Rise From the Tomb

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With all the buzz around mobile computing hardware, some in the tech sphere have been compelled to declare the death of the desktop PC. The writing is on the wall—or so it seems—that time has passed by the desktop machine. With tablets being marketed as fully-functioning business devices, and so much emphasis on cloud computing, Web applications, and the work-from-anywhere mentality, the thought space has not been conducive for a big, clunky PC.

There is also hard data that suggests the demise of the desktop PC. Year-over-year shipment numbers started flatlining for manufacturers in the early part of this decade. Then, starting in the second quarter 2012, the market began a steady quarterly decline, reaching 5 percent, then 10 percent, and almost 15 percent negative growth by the early part of 2013. Analysts blamed this on the emerging tablet market, also on the economic uncertainty of the times and a stagnant business climate.

But new data released this week suggests that it is too soon to hold a funeral for desktop computers.

New Data, New Life for Desktops

A report from the American Consumer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) indicates that user satisfaction has surged for desktop PCs. The index measures how users rate the technology in terms of it meeting their expectations, and this year, desktop computers met these expectations better than tablets and other mobile devices.  Apple® leads the PC category, with a score of 84 out of 100, but that is down three points from last year. Hot on Apple’s heels are smaller (relative term) PC makers Samsung®, Lenovo® and Asus®, who each made eight percent gains, logging an ACSI score of 82. U.S. market leaders Hewlett-Packard and Dell scored in the bottom ranks with numbers in the mid-70s.

Whether this data suggests that PCs are back on the upswing with consumers is up for interpretation.  “The increase in customer satisfaction for PCs could mean two different things,” says Claes Fornell, ACSI Chairman and founder in a statement. “Either the product is seen as more attractive now and is poised for a comeback, or it has higher customer satisfaction simply because those who were less than happy with it have moved to other devices.”

However nebulous linking consumer satisfaction numbers to the overall state of the PC market might seem, there are other positive indicators for desktop computing. Market research firm IDC said it expects a spike in second half 2014 sales numbers for desktop PC workstations. Workstation machines represent the top-end of performance computing. Sales numbers for workstations stand to benefit from the release of Intel’s new Xeon E5-1600 V3 chips (also called Haswell chips) which came out in August. Typically deployed by enterprises in engineering, digital content creation, software, and financial services, workstation machines provide OEMs nice profit margins in the 30 percent range.

Conversely, margins in the commodity computing market traditionally do not fare as well, which is why some analysts assert that the prime movers in this market—HP and Dell—are clamoring to go the way of IBM and exit this space. News of merger talks between HP and storage giant EMC Corp. adds credence to this assertion, signaling that HP is possibly interested in moving into the growing hybrid cloud technology marketplace.

Despite this, HP announced a surprise 12 percent quarterly revenue increase from its PC division in September. Dell announced 12.5 percent growth in the same quarter. Lenovo’s shipments grew 15.1 percent. Acer was the only vendor to post a decline.

PCs Still the Best Production Tools for Business

So what is going on here? How are desktop PCs making a comeback in the age of tablets, phablets, and mobile-everything? What is driving this resurgence? A guess: at the end of the day, the desktop PC is still the best machine for doing day-in, day-out business functions—making spreadsheets, writing white papers, running shared servers with Microsoft Office®, and the like. The paradigm that mobile devices are best suited for consuming content whereas desktops are best suited for creating content still rings true—perhaps even more so after the bling of that shiny new mobile gadget dulls a bit.

With retailers making available office-ready machines in the $300-$600 range, the price is right as well. For a company using computers as a mode of production, this places desktop PCs front and center in the technology culture of many businesses.

With a rebounding U.S. economy experiencing steady job growth and increased business spending, it makes sense that the PC market would come back as well. Do not expect desktop computers to go the way of the typewriter; they remain one of the most capable and cost-effective production tools a business can buy.

Photo by Kai Hendry, taken from Flickr Creative Commons
Adam Lovinus

Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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