The Future PC: Part 1 - Thinking Outside the Box

The traditional business PC is changing to reflect the demands of business. Driven by a need for cost-efficiencies and ever more creative ways to add value to the user experience, new form factors and designs will proliferate to challenge IT buying assumptions and processes.
Written by Stephen Kleynhans, Contributor

The traditional business PC is changing to reflect the demands of business. Driven by a need for cost-efficiencies and ever more creative ways to add value to the user experience, new form factors and designs will proliferate to challenge IT buying assumptions and processes.

META Trend: Although Windows-based PCs will remain the dominant information access point for corporate and consumer users through 2007, multiple information consumption devices - tuned to user-selected, specific lifestyle situations, work needs, and personal preferences - will become essential business tools. By 2005, pervasive computing/communications technologies will blur the line between corporate and consumer computing, ushering in an era of lifestyle computing.

As the corporate PC approaches its 25th anniversary in 2006, there will be major changes in the design and type of systems used to outfit end users. Although, the traditional bulky beige box has given way to smaller, more stylish designs during the past few years, even greater changes are entering the planning horizon as corporate information architects begin designing end-user environments for 2005 and beyond. We expect organizations will start to find that the focus on operations cost reduction, which has dominated end-user platform planning and design, will provide diminishing returns. As such, by 2005/06 we expect the focus to have shifted toward improving the value provided by technology and solving usage rather than operational end-user problems. With this shift, increasing attention will be given to how users interact with systems, how information is presented and communicated between users, and how richer data types are supported - including voice and video.

Making Connections
Increasingly, hardware designers will focus on enabling information workers to more conveniently access a broader range of information sources as well as communicate and collaborate more efficiently with others. This will lead to more attention to items external to the PC such as the monitor, I/O devices, and interconnects. When HP and Microsoft recently unveiled the Athens concept PC, closer inspection revealed that it was not really a PC in and of itself, but rather an enhanced desktop that could be attached to any suitable PC system unit. The enhancements focused not on processing but user interface.

This is not to imply that the PC system unit is irrelevant. Indeed, supporting the rich interfaces and simplifying operations will require enhancements to the PC architecture. However, organizations must begin to take a more holistic view that puts an increased emphasis on the items that surround the PC. To this end, we have seen HP take the lead among major PC vendors with the introduction of its well-designed Integrated Work Center and new Desktop Access Center, which provide wireless mouse and keyboard, headset integration, telephone pass-through, and an optical drive bay. We expect other vendors to follow with their own desktop integration devices during 2004.

One area that continues to be contentious is integration of the personal computer with end-user telephony. Although success has been achieved in specialized environments (e.g., call centers), for most users the telephone and computing infrastructures remain disconnected. However, vendors have recently begun showing a renewed interest in combining both of these end-user communications points, partly due to growing interest in voice over IP and desktop conferencing. Although we are skeptical that most users will actually end up combining their trusty telephones into their PCs, there are definite areas for synergy - particularly in the access to complex voice mail and conferencing features - which are currently hamstrung by limited interface options available on the telephone. In particular, we expect PC access to dialing - as well as integration of voice mail - and e-mail inboxes will become commonplace by 2006.

Multiple Monitors
Driven by shrinking prices, low operations costs, and long life cycles, organizations have switched over more than 30% of monitor purchasing to LCD flat panels. We expect LCD monitors will surpass CRTs in new corporate purchasing during 2004. Organizations should consider larger monitors (17- and 18-inch) with at least 1280x1024 resolution rather than the smaller (and less flexible) 15-inch displays to extend useful life into the Longhorn era.

At the same time, user environments are growing increasingly complex, with more reliance on “always up” information sources. Unified inboxes, real-time information feeds, and instant messaging require information displays that are continually available on-screen for “glanceable” access. This in turn will drive the need for large increases in screen real estate. Long term (>2007), we expect to see the development of very large monitors with approximately 450-500 square inches of viewable area (compared to about 110-150 currently). For now, we expect a surge in dual monitor implementations.

Dual monitor environments enable users to keep tasks requiring ongoing supervision separate but still visible, while a second monitor is used for a focus task (e.g., working in an application). Currently, the space consumed by dual monitors makes it impractical unless flat panels are used. However, the cost of dual flat panels is prohibitive for most corporate desktops. Increasing screen real estate through multiple monitors has been common in high-value environments such as traders’ desks or operations consoles. However, declining prices (driven by improved manufacturing techniques and overall demand for LCD monitors), coupled with built-in hardware enablement, will drive increased usage of multimonitors. By 2006, 40% of new information worker environments will include dual monitors.

A very real example where multiple monitors could be immediately beneficial to a large number of users is in the increasing usage of Web conferencing to replace face-to-face meetings. Frequently, a user would like to have the presentation displayed on one screen, while taking notes or chatting with participants on another screen. Although it is possible to arrange multiple windows on a single monitor to facilitate this, it is awkward and limiting. With dual monitors, this scenario is straightforward.

Most current desktop PCs can be outfitted for a second monitor with the addition of an inexpensive riser card, but we expect embedded capability during 2H04 to be commonplace. In addition, while many users attach a second monitor to their notebooks in the office, most do not realize that they can configure their systems to treat the external screen as an additional display rather than simply a replacement for the internal panel.

In the long run, we believe IT organizations will need to extend beyond focusing solely on device considerations and become more involved in the overall space planning activities around end-user workspaces. This will require forming relationships with new vendors (e.g., Steelcase, Herman Miller) and developing expertise to better shape the work environment for end users. Although improvements to the end-user environment will raise hardware acquisition costs, we believe the benefits in either operational costs or process improvements will offset the increases.

Business Impact: Organizational productivity will be advanced by enabling users to more efficiently access a broader range of information and more effectively communicate with others.

Bottom Line: Organizations need to look beyond traditional desktop configurations, and embrace new options to enable a rich information worker platform that enables users to more effectively access information and provide the necessary foundation for future information process improvements.

META Group originally published this article on 3 November 2003.

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