Loading...
Technology

For productivity, PCs still rule (for now)

14 May, 2012

Is the PC era really over? The success portable computing devices including smartphones and PC tablets has some speculating that the dominance of the desktop PC, and even the laptop, may be coming to an end.

Gartner research analyst Nick Ingelbrecht and Mikako Kitagawa recently conducted a series of focus groups in the US, UK, China, Taiwan and Japan to explore consumers' device usage and their research provides an insight into the growing importance of mobile devices and their impact on PC usage.

I asked Nick Ingelbrecht to highlight some of the most interesting findings of his reasearch.

Q. What did your focus groups with consumers tell you about smartphone, tablet, and PC usage inside companies?

We found that smartphone use is pervasive, especially among early adopter segments, but not necessarily for work purposes.

Mobile phones are personal devices that allow people to pursue social interactions throughout the day, regardless what enterprise policies are in force regarding PC usage or for Facebook access at work, for example. People don't expect to switch off their personal lives when they go into work and people use their smartphones to continue their social interactions throughout the day, wherever they are.

That doesn't mean these interactions are trivial. In the Shanghai focus groups, for example, we got a strong sense that keeping up to date with the latest news and information via microblogs borders on a Darwinian imperative for some consumers, because of the competitive pressures. We also found that the use of mobile phones for work and personal use is seamless, especially where people are bringing their own devices into work.

The focus groups also highlighted the degree to which smartphones and tablets are "sucking in" increasing amounts of PC functionality. At work, the desktop PC or laptop remains the prevalent device today, but device portability around the campus and off site mean that people's expectations and behaviour are changing. Rather than lugging the work laptop around like they used to, people are finding they can do 80 per cent of what they need to get done using a tablet or smartphone, so the laptop stays in the bag or the PC gets marooned on the desk until the time that you absolutely need to go into the office or haul it out, boot it up and wait for an Internet connection.

Q. Are smartphones and tablets being purchased as direct replacements for PCs?

Some consumers told us that when their PC dies, they are considering getting a tablet instead, but the reality is most consumers don't want a direct replacement for the PC. Instead, people want portable devices they can take into the lounge or bedroom or on the train or bus and use these devices in a more comfortable setting or while they are out and about, rather than sitting chained to a desk staring at a PC screen.

There is an element of generational change driving this lifestyle shift and in general terms, we are seeing many Gen Y-type behaviours becoming more mainstream. In our focus groups the "next device" people overwhelmingly planned to buy was a smartphone if they didn't already own one. Many of those that already own a smartphone said a tablet would be their next technology purchase. But some are not satisfied.

For instance, one Japanese lady complained the iPad was too big to fit in her handbag, so it wasn't much use to her. There is an inverse correlation between portable devices and PC usage, so that once you buy a tablet, your PC use goes down the most, followed by your laptop use and then, to a lesser extent, your smartphone use. Some consumers prefer PCs because of their familiarity with the device and they are comfortable using the physical keyboard for text input. However, consumers often associate PCs with "work" and like to use media tablets and smartphones to relax.

Q. What are the main uses for smartphones and tablets in the enterprise?

Smartphones and tablets are used throughout the day along with notebooks and PCs but at a higher and more persistent level. Tablets tend to be used either for media consumption or for checking things – for example checking the e-mail, the news, checking the weather, the football results, reading books in your lunch hour or playing games.

PCs are still predominantly used for e-mail responses, work-related research, for detailed product comparisons, banking applications and putting reports and presentations together. However, once people have a choice of devices, the PC tends to get marooned in the study or home office. Elsewhere in the house, people use their smartphones, tablets, or laptop if they don't have a tablet.

On the other hand, we found in China that a lot of people are hooking up their PCs to the TV so they can watch soaps and TV dramas downloaded over the internet for free. So there are all kinds of trade-offs going on here in different parts of the world.

For employed people, our research shows that people continue to use their phones for private purposes throughout the working day, even though laptops or PCs are available. One interpretation of this is that people prefer to have their private activities running discretely on their mobiles because that way they tend to interfere less with the work activities they are doing on the PC or laptop.

But it also shows that users are nowadays making less of a distinction between private time and work time.

Q. Are there specific tasks that still require the use of a PC?

PCs are often preferred for specific tasks around content creation and video intensive applications like 3D computer graphics and video editing. These run better on a PC or laptop where you don't have to compromise on power, display and processing speed.

Manipulating complex spreadsheets or finance applications where you need multiple screens still run best on a PC for now. But even so, big data and mission critical applications have begun migrating to tablets. This migration is also being driven by cloud services. For highly secure enterprise applications or those involving sensitive customer data, then the company may only permit access through a locked down laptop or PC, which supports the required level of encryption and security controls.

Q. What does the future hold for the PC industry and consumer behaviour generally?

PC makers have been placing big bets on mobilising their products including tablets, smartphones and ultra-books along with the cloud services and ecosystems to support them.

Although consumers are not initially purchasing tablets as PC replacements, once they acquire tablets and smartphones, they tend to integrate these devices into their lives, and that reshapes their consumption habits in the process.

Consumers' dependency on the desktop PC diminishes as more functionality migrates to portable devices. Consumers prefer the convenience of mobile devices for many reasons: In one portable package you have a high resolution camera, music player, access to Facebook and Google, and – by the way – a phone. Then there are other improvements such as "instant-on," as well as the more intuitive interfaces like touch-screens and the context aware applications and the cloud-based ecosystems that support these devices.

But it is important to remember that while the technology is changing very quickly, this does not entail a massive overnight change in mainstream consumer behaviour. The reality is there are different consumer segments and each is quite distinct from the "average" consumer.

Roughly two-thirds of the technology market is comprised of "later adopter" segments and many of these only adopt technologies when they think it is no longer "safe" for them not to do so.

The most intriguing aspect of this is the way that over time, consumer behaviour is fundamentally changing as our cognitive frameworks are changing and that means in ten years time, the technology market will look very different from what it is today.

Is the PC era really over? The success portable computing devices including smartphones and PC tablets has some speculating that the dominance of the desktop PC, and even the laptop, may be coming to an end.Gartner research analyst Nick Ingelbrecht and Mikako Kitagawa recently conducted a series of focus groups in the US, UK, China, Taiwan and Japan to explore consumers' device usage and their research provides an insight into the growing importance of mobile devices and their impact on PC usage.

I asked Nick Ingelbrecht to highlight some of the most interesting findings of his reasearch.

More News From Financial Times

News Corp expands China film footprint

US and Europe need 'to learn from rest of world'

Dividend policy: yielding tricky questions

Walmart to trial George clothing in Chile

Infineon chief to quit as health worsens