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Your Replacement or Mine?

For desktop computers, something newish this way comes.

Although it seems long ago, there was a time when companies routinely replaced their old personal computers every three years and sometimes sooner. Now, with money tight and PCs powerful enough to handle most office tasks, companies are hanging on to them for four or five years and sometimes longer. So long, in fact, that it may surprise some to learn that the worldwide market for PCs is still a growth industry. True, projections have been trimmed, but IDC, for one, expects sales this year to outpace those of 2002 by 6.3 percent (in unit volume).

While companies no doubt enjoy the fact that they are able to spend less on PCs (see CFO IT’srecent survey data), Roger Kay, vice president of client computing at IDC, claims that “purchases of PCs are being delayed, but if corporate profits come back in a couple of years, many companies will return to a three-year cycle.”

Some enterprises continue to purchase new machines to keep up with changing business needs. This year, for example, the Bank of Montreal invested in 20,000 new PCs as part of an effort to improve customer service. The bank plans to use the new machines to run customer relationship management software that would have taxed the older models.

Even if computing horsepower is not a factor, capital investment in a fresh fleet of PCs can be put off for only so long before issues of service life begin to mount. Some disk drives, for example, have only three-year warranties and can be expected to incur problems after five years, reports Kay. “Older systems end up costing money to maintain,” he says, “and the potential of data loss or intrusion increases over time.”

In the good old days, makers of PCs could count on factors other than obsolescence to move merchandise. Significant new technology—be it the graphical user interface, the finally-big-enough hard drive, or the ability to multitask—had corporate customers eager to swap out the old for the new. In the absence of significant breakthroughs, computer makers today hope to win desktop sales with older ideas that have been refined and repackaged. Is either one worth the investment?

Announced last year with as much fanfare as a slumping industry can muster, the tablet PC is a pen-based notebook that weighs about three pounds and is priced from about $1,599 to $2,699. The most popular configuration, called a “convertible,” includes a keyboard, which appeals to those who aren’t ready to use the pen (or stylus) as the one and only means of input, and is useful for certain data-intensive applications.

Tablets, Take Two

Tablets combine the proven portability of a notebook or laptop with the continually unproven ability of computers to deal with handwriting. During a demo with a Toshiba convertible tablet PC loaded with Microsoft’s handwriting-recognition software and operating system, the machine mistakenly read the word housing as housewifing. The word was written again, this time more carefully, in a very legible (to this reporter’s eye, at least) longhand. But again, when converted to Microsoft Word, it came up housewifing.

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