The Desktop Is Far from Dead

Opinion: Notebooks look to be gaining in the form-factor race. But don't count desktops out. There are good reasons why desktops will be around for a long while, even though they will need to morph to survive.

With all the hoopla over climbing sales of notebooks, the desktop is already a dead puppy in many peoples minds. This leap of imagination exists despite the fact that desktops still represent the majority of systems shipped worldwide each year.

While the rise of the "notebook ratio" (the number of notebooks divided by the number of notebooks and desktops combined) cant be ignored, several ongoing requirements will drive the survival of the desktop as it morphs into more usable forms.

In general, mobility is a good thing, mitigated only by, in most cases, a higher price. With volume shipments, mobile component costs are coming down and the mobile premium is declining. However, there are three cases in which desktops are preferable and will likely remain so: task stations, white boxes and extreme gaming.

Task Stations. Companies that employ large groups of task workers dont want their PCs going anywhere. Task work is an anti-mobility application. Such stations are often shared as workers go on and off shifts.

Even though these machines are PCs, they are anything but "personal." Nothing but work applications is done on them, and the work is done in a certain place. The owners would just as soon nail them to the floor to make sure they dont go anywhere.

White boxes. These machines have two features that make them appealing to a certain class of buyer and seller: modularity and cost. In general, white boxes, which are put together with low-cost parts as buying opportunities present themselves, are less expensive than any other type of PC client.

But it is the modularity that makes them really attractive to this part of the market. A white box assembler or user can get his or her elbows right inside the box and exchange parts at will.

On the other hand, notebooks are much more highly integrated and do not lend themselves well to white-box-type activity.

Extreme Gaming. The leading edge in technology will always require a larger heat envelope than is available in a notebook. While notebooks are now fast enough to run games, the fastest machines are desktops. In fact, many high-end gaming machines—such as competition systems made by Alienware, Voodoo and Velocity—have a capacity of about 60 liters. No hummingbirds, these boxes.

Yet its true—much of the cool new stuff is coming out in notebook form, and many PC hardware vendors have eschewed desktops entirely in favor of notebooks. The mobile machines also contribute more to both top and bottom lines per unit than do desktops, given the higher prices and margins.

However, that being said, the desktop has a long way to go before it gives up the ghost entirely.

Take a look at Endpoints 10-year forecast on desktop form factors (see below). It shows a clear increase for small and ultrasmall desktops, but the workhorse tower configuration remains the dominant type over the next couple of years, through 2008.

In the longer time frame, the smaller form factors completely take over from the types of systems that currently dominate the market: The traditional flat desktop, which takes up a lot of room on the actual desk, is gone. The large tower, now associated with gaming systems, becomes marginalized. Even the minitower, which accounts for most systems in U.S. retail today, is greatly diminished.

The form factors that have come from virtually nowhere in 2002, enabled by technical developments such as low-cost flat-panel displays and cooler-running processors, will take over.

The small desktop—defined as having a volume of 7 to 20 liters in tech talk, or from about the size of a college dictionary to the girth of a good-sized breadbox, for those of us who can remember either—will become the most popular type.

The small size is followed closely by the ultrasmall, defined as 1 to 7 liters, or about the size of a notebook or dictionary. The key difference is that the small box uses desktop components and is cheaper, while the ultrasmall uses notebook components, which go at a premium because of miniaturization.


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Also rising is the all-in-one, which is basically a small or ultrasmall system glued to the back of the flat-panel monitor. Apple is doing this now with its iMac Duo line.

Because of improvements in component thermal output, desktops will be able to get small and quiet enough so that they become unobtrusive. They will be able to hide behind the monitor, sit in a rack under the desktop, or fit neatly into an audio-visual stack in the living room.

By late in the decade, maybe they will no longer even be called desktops because so few of them will actually sit on desks. Start thinking of new names for the category. Perhaps they should be renamed "stationary PCs."

Roger L. Kay is founder and president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.


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