Time to Make Computers Personal Again

Rob Enderle

At one time companies bought cars for employees and it was a standard perk. This shifted over time to being a personal purchase. Cell phones, with some exceptions, remained a personal purchase that could in some instances be expensed. If you look at the numbers reflecting continued growth for consumer purchases of PCs and a declining trend for IT purchases, it appears that the hard economy is driving a similar trend for PC purchases. The vendors gaining share, including Acer, Asus and Apple, focus almost exclusively on the end user and the dominant vendor, HP, has at its core a marketing campaign of making the PC personal again. Dell, which remains 80 percent corporate, is having a much more difficult time.


The PC started out being a very focused personal purchase, much like a mechanic's tool or an artist's brush. But over time, at least in the corporate world, it became more like furniture, and margins -- and prices -- collapsed. I believe the current numbers reflect a trend back to what it once was, a tool more closely aligned to the employee than the company, and that suggests a change in corporate buying policy is happening quietly.


The Foundation of the PC was Personal

At the beginning of the PC market, IT generally did not support personal computers. Individuals bought them to get around the bottleneck of application development and lack of customer focus that IT represented. Operating groups purchased PCs both as specialized tools that put word processing, spreadsheets and limited database capability in the department so certain tasks, ranging from sales management to normal correspondence, could be kept close to groups that needed them.


However, over time IT took control and equipment was purchased based on the general needs of the corporation rather than the unique needs of the individual. Dell, which initially focused on the individual, saw this trend better than most and rose to dominance largely by serving the needs of the corporation. Microsoft, as well, after Windows 95, shifted focus from the individual to the corporation and built Windows NT, based largely on OS/2 which had initially been jointly designed with IBM.


Apple went into sharp decline during these times and the market was defined by white boxes that came to represent generic workers living in cubicle farms. The PC drifted toward being a commodity and prices and revenues plummeted at an alarming rate.

Apple and the Return of the Personal Computer

Steve Jobs' return to Apple -- though few recognized its true significance -- represented a renaissance of the concept of the personal computer. It is somewhat ironic that Apple's later campaigns attempted to distance the company from the name because there was no company this decade initially more focused on the "personal" part of computing than Apple.


The fact the company felt the need to distance itself from the name showcased how badly the concept had declined.

Acer and Asus came up like rockets and, in Europe, Samsung made massive inroads focusing exclusively on the end user and corporate buying started to slow dramatically. At the same time profit-and-loss responsibility shifted back to operating groups that increasingly, and once again, gained the capability to make purchase decisions. The IT-focused PC OEMs and research groups, with some exceptions, didn't see the shift because they were focused too tightly on IT. But these consumer-focused companies where growing and executives and individuals were increasingly using PCs they purchased for work, reducing or eliminating the need to refresh corporate PCs as they aged.


This suggests that the perception that there is a coming massive wave of IT purchases may be false. Why would IT need to drive a massive refresh of PCs if, much as it is with cell phones, employees mostly use their own machines now? With short budgets, why not instead focus on capital items that need to be replaced rather than on hardware that employees probably won't use because they prefer their own machines?


Wrapping Up: Suggested Policy Changes

With laptop and desktop prices falling down below $500, it is likely time to consider policy changes that encourage individuals to buy their own PCs. Encouraging the expensing of upgrades from Windows consumer configurations to professional configurations, the creation of virtual images that can co-reside with the personal images on these PCs and enabling group support (much like is done in Apple shops) or allowing the expensing of support and wireless services (much like is done with smartphones) would all drive this behavior and tend to lower the capital cost and corporate responsibilities surrounding PC purchases.


In the end, the market is moving in this direction anyway, and it doesn't appear, at least not in most corporations, that IT has the power to stop it. Companies like Cisco appear to be embracing this trend, which is why you'll find so many Macs at Cisco today, and financially benefitting from it. Maybe it's time to encourage and benefit from making the personal computer personal again.

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