Despite rising sales of notebooks, the desktop PC, which is still the foundation of most companies day-to-day operations, isnt dead yet. But it is changing, PC industry watchers say.
Mainstream desktops have gained processing power, graphics capabilities and storage capacity over the years, while coming down in price. But theyve long held the same basic shapes, appearing most often as mini-towers, and offered much of the same basic functionality for word processing and Web surfing.
PC makers and chipmaker Intel Corp., reacting to pressures from portable PCs in maturing markets such as the U.S., and to customers greater emphasis of factors such as yearly management costs, including electricity, and even acoustics, are designing desktops into smaller, quieter and, they hope, more IT-friendly forms.
“The desktop is alive and its kicking,” said Dilip Bhatia, program direction for ThinkCentre desktops at Lenovo Group Ltd. “Granted notebooks are growing faster. But the desktop is still the largest [market] opportunity on a worldwide basis.”
Small desktops, such as Lenovos ThinkCentre S Series, are likely to grow in popularity thanks to a combination of factors, including greater interest in them from large businesses and developments such as the advent of less power-hungry chips from Intel.
The chipmaker has also set out to remake desktops by introducing new platforms aimed at businesses and consumers. The business platform, for one, focuses on delivering multicore chips, along with management technologies and communications capabilities, through partnerships with companies such as Skype Technologies S.A. The developments will foster new ways for businesses to use the machines to communicate—and consumers to entertain themselves—the chipmaker hopes.
“It used to be that the tower was the de facto standard, but now small form factors are taking precedence,” Bhatia said. “IT managers are saying, We dont need all that expandability as everything [including features such as graphics] is integrated.”
The same IT managers are telling companies like Lenovo that theyd like to remove costs of desk-side visits for repairs, which can cost $100 or $200 alone, he said.
Lenovo isnt the only company seeing trends toward smaller desktops with beefier management features. Dell Inc.s customers have also been purchasing smaller machines, such as its OptiPlex SX280 in some cases as well.
“What were seeing happening is, over time, as weve integrated more into the system board–graphics, Ethernet, audio—combined with USB 2.0, you dont necessarily need all the expansion that traditional desktops have provided,” Chris Zagorski, senior manager of OptiPlex product marketing at Dell Inc. “So why not shrink the size and use flat panels—use less power?”
Business desktops will integrate
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Intels new platforms, which follow a recipe similar to that of its Centrino bundle for wireless notebooks, aim to make desktops more attractive to businesses by pairing its latest hardware and Stable Image Program, which ensures a platform will not be changed for a year, with management, security and even communications capabilities. The Skype partnership, for example, is designed to help make the VOIP service work better on Intel-based PCs.
PC makers who use the platforms are left to put their own spin on the machines designs, including their sizes. Some will augment their future small desktops with Yonah, a dual-core version of Intels Pentium M notebook chip.
Intels first Professional Business Platform for desktops came out in May. The bundle included Intel Pentium 4 600 series chips and Intels 945G chipsets and was available with its Active Management Technology or AMT. AMT, which monitors PCs hardware and can help recover broken PCs, is part of Intels Embedded IT effort, under which it seeks to include management technologies inside its silicon.
Because companies are trying to lower desktop management costs, “AMT—that only helps us,” Bhatia said.
So far Lenovo is the only major brand name manufacturer in the U.S. to have adopted AMT, although Dell and others are likely taking time to evaluate it.
Intel will update the Professional Business Platform with more capabilities for 2006. A new platform, dubbed Averill, will incorporate the companys dual-core Pentium D 900 series chips with a beefed-up chipset and a new gigabit Ethernet network interface card. The platform will also include a more advanced AMT and support Intels hardware-based Virtualization Technology. A subset of Averills features will be available on notebooks, in addition to desktops, Intel has said, marking the first time its Professional Business Platform will go mobile.
“There are a lot of lessons they learned from Centrino that theyre trying to ply in other businesses. VIIV [Intels consumer brand] and Centrino mimic each other and now the platform thing. Its all the same,” said Richard Shim, analyst at International Data Corp. “Its clear that performance can no longer be the sole story, so [Intel has to ask itself] What can you add on top of performance?”
Aside from gaining from the dual-core chip, which can improve a PCs flexibility by allowing it to operate more smoothly while backup or antivirus software is running the background, PCs may see a security and manageability boost from virtualization as well.
Virtualization can be used to partition a desktop, just like a server, to run multiple operating systems and their software sets. Manufacturers are likely to begin by shipping machines with special partitions, enabled by virtualization. Lenovo, for one, demonstrated using a partition for security and management. When the PC was attacked by a virus, the PC used software located in the partition to combat it.
Virtualization could reshape the
Over time, companies might use virtualization to allow PCs to run different software images, keeping corporate software separate from other software on the machine, for example, to lessen the chance of it becoming corrupted.
“Virtualization—thats certainly something we believe, over time, will be an interesting technology for corporate,” Zagorski said. However, “We do think theres going to be some amount of time required to enable the ecosystem.”
Although most of the platform capabilities can be built into any desktop, regardless of its size, a development coming in the latter half of next year will bolster small desktops. Intel plans to roll out Conroe, a new dual-core processor designed to use less energy than todays Pentium D and Pentium 4 chips, during the latter part of 2006. Conroe, which Intel said would have a maximum power consumption of 65 watts—half as much as some Pentium 4s—would fit easily into smaller desktops, analysts and PC makers say, but still give them a performance bump.
“Itll run quieter, the acoustics are going to be even better, and itll help toward more small form factors,” Bhatia said.
Small businesses and consumers are generally still leaning toward larger desktops, with the exception of machines such as Apple Computer Inc.s Mac Mini. But even those market segments could be in for a change.
Intel also has a platform effort under way for consumer desktops. It launched the VIIV brand, pronounced like vive, and a hardware platform to go with it during its fall Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco in late August.
At that time, Intel showed a small PC reference design, called Golden Gate, which isnt much larger than an external PC DVD drive.
Intel is shopping the Golden Gate design, whose concept is similar to the Mac Mini in many ways, around to PC makers, who could use it to build low-cost, small-footprint consumer PCs. But “Itll be awhile before we get to that size” for businesses, however, Bhatia said.
Where Golden Gate uses Yonah, a forthcoming notebook chip from Intel, corporate PCs, for cost reasons, will continue to use standard desktop parts, including 5.25-inch optical drives and 3.5-inch hard drives, since they can be bought without a paying a premium, Bhatia said. Thus theyre likely to continue sporting so-called six liter and nine-liter designs—the description refers to their internal volume—but those desktops are much smaller than traditional towers. Dell offers six- and 10-liter small desktops, versus its tower-based machines, which range up to 32 liters.
“The direction [Intels platforms] are heading with increased efficiency on power and not only to support our smaller form factors but also cost of ownership for our customers—to use less power and less heat—will also minimize any [support] issues as well,” Zagorski said.
The shift may take some time, however.
“Theres still a lot of consumers and a lot of small business who like their towers, so itll be an evolution,” Bhatia said.