Why you need a new PC

newsweek international, March 15, 2004

If you’re like most computer users, you probably need a new PC, and soon. For most people, especially business users, the need to upgrade is urgent. But there is an upside. Upgraders will get more machine, more versatility and greater stability than they would have even a year ago.


The machine you rely on now is likely one of 50 million worldwide that’s at least four years old. It was probably purchased in 1999 to beat the Millennium Bug and to get you connected to the Internet—like seemingly everybody else. If previous PC turnover rates had held, your machine would have been replaced sometime during the last 18 months. In the past, the typical PC lasted three years before it was considered out of date. But the worldwide recession changed that thinking. Finance departments told IT departments they’d have to make do with what they had, because substantial capital spending was out of the question. Now those four-year-old-and-up PCs are coming up against factors that mean their days truly are numbered.


Basic components — the hard drives, fans, switches and electromagnetic parts — are reaching their limits. Components are designed to operate reliably for about five years. Some stop sooner. Some keep running. But once they pass the five-year mark, their reliability drops. IDC, a Framingham, Massachusetts technology consulting and analysis firm, cites component failure as a growing threat to millions of superannuated PCs.


“If all of those PCs just died with a hard-drive whine and a puff of smoke, the IT and corporate management issue would be simple: buy a new computer with an up-to-date operating system,” states Peter Kastner, an analyst with the Boston, Massachusetts based Aberdeen Group. “The computers keep running, more or less, the way they have for four or five years — which is why so many executives have repeatedly used the low-risk, ‘no way’ answer to requests for a new generation of business PC replacements.”


“It’s kind of like a hip replacement,” explains Dana Gardner, senior analyst for Boston-based Yankee Group. “It’s got to be done. Your life will improve. But you also know it will cost a lot of money and you’ll be out of commission for weeks while you recover from the procedure.”


New technology, including wireless Internet access and up-to-date operating systems, will persuade many users that upgrading is worth the trouble it takes. IDC points out a key difference between Windows XP and earlier versions: increased security. Microsoft offers faster, more thorough security for XP. Patches are delivered almost immediately whenever a new vulnerability is identified. Microsoft delivers system updates to XP users’ machines with a notification they need to be installed.


There’s a price to pay for not upgrading. “If you don’t upgrade soon, there’s a performance penalty, too,” says Loren Loverde, IDC director and worldwide quarterly PC tracker. “The cost of the hardware is only a fraction of the cost of a PC. Maintenance and management are a big part of the cost, too. Newer PCs have a lot of features for reducing the costs of maintenance and service.”


Experts and consultants cite new chips from Intel, including the Pentium 4 for desktops (more than twice as fast as its predecessor, the Pentium III), the Pentium M for mobile systems and the Itanium chipset for servers, as key upgrade inducements.  And don’t forget wireless connectivity. Virtually unknown in 1998 and 1999, wireless access to the Internet is now a standard part of any new portable PC, thanks in large part to Intel’s Centrino technology. Analysts recommend that when companies upgrade, they consider increasing the percentage of portables in their fleets. Many suggest replacing about a third of an organization’s desktops with portables.


“The split between technology and business reasons for upgrading is fuzzy,” says IDC’s Loverde. “Having the ability to work wirelessly enables you to be on the road and collaborate more, and those translate into business reasons. But with wireless computing, there are also technology reasons.”


New systems are less expensive, richer in features and capabilities, more collaborative, more stable and cheaper to maintain and protect. They’re also more flexible. Microsoft’s operating systems are still the default software for most enterprise computing. But analysts point out that Linux and other open-source applications can run on newer systems, too.


Users in Europe are driving much of the upgrading. Merrill Lynch analyst Steven Milunovich says European computer trends have historically trailed North America by about six months, but not this time. He says firms all over the world will likely find American and European customers, suppliers, corporate parents and competitors replacing worn-out systems this year, and will have to do the same to keep pace.


The Aberdeen Group took its own advice first, replacing 60 of its PCs last year. “We did not like spending hard cash in a down economy to upgrade our PC ecosystem,” recalls Kastner. “We concluded that we could not afford the aggravation and potential disruption to our knowledge-worker-driven business by not upgrading.” Kastner urges other companies to do the same. “For businesses that are at the tipping point — especially the small to medium-sized ones lacking a global IT operations department — it is time to crank up the planning for the recession-disrupted PC replacement cycle and get with the 21st century.”