META Reports: Client Systems Will Require More Processing Power
However, because the increases in demand for processing power will be steady and incremental rather than the result of a sudden change in software or hardware features, it offers no short-term panacea for PC vendors that have been struggling to find a way to jump-start the consumer and corporate PC markets. Likewise, user organizations responding to the current economic downturn by lengthening desktop and laptop life cycles beyond three years will face no near-term disadvantage from failing to immediately ramp up the power available on end users' desktops.
To understand the innovations that will fuel the long-term need for more power, it is necessary to understand the following major trends shaping end-user computing in both the consumer and corporate markets:
- Increasing collaboration, resulting from the combination of communicating and computing
- The "always connected/always on" world created by the Internet and wireless technology, which is driving the need for faster response times, security, and availability
- Digital replacing analog for all types of media
- Increasingly global organizations struggling to foster worldwide collaboration and reduce language and cultural differences
- Decentralization of the workforce (telecommuting, etc.)
- Increasing prevalence of the "knowledge worker" model to encompass all employee levels and job types
- The need to reduce computing complexity to enable end users to derive maximum value from their systems
The most obvious driver for new computing power has always been increasingly complex applications. Although most business computing has remained rather mundane (i.e., pushing text and numbers around), an increasing number of advanced computing techniques are starting to find their way into everyday (albeit specialized) usage - including computer simulations, rich 3D visualization tools, advanced learning systems, and contextual adaptation capabilities. We do not expect all users to have an ongoing need for these applications, but developers will inevitably begin to use these techniques in a wider range of applications, fueling the need for more power in an increasing number of client systems.
PC system administrative and maintenance tasks will also utilize more processing power as it becomes available. These includes system "housekeeping" tasks (i.e., tools that monitor, correct, update, and optimize the system), reliability enhancements (e.g., system file protection and redundancy), the elimination of performance "bottlenecks," and synchronization of information between devices using the PC as the central hub. Microsoft has already begun to implement some of these capabilities in Windows XP and Windows 2000 Professional, and more advanced features will continue to emerge.
Users will also benefit from improved information management capabilities to cope with the ever-rising flood of information arriving at their desktops via e-mail, instant messages, voice mail, Web sites, etc. New system capabilities will likely include enhanced e-mail management technologies, processing capacity to handle multiple streams of rich media as well as metadata (e.g., XML tags) associated with content and interactions, and enhanced encryption and other security capabilities resident on the client system.
Between 2002 and 2006, Global 2000 companies will aggressively embed collaborative components into business applications, enabling shorter sales cycles, faster product development, increased transactions, improved partner/customer retention, and expedited problem resolution. Collaboration will extend to include streaming audio, voice, and (by 2004) video, driven by corporate communication and e-learning strategies. Collaboration will also expand to encompass real-time interaction and information exchange, making increased use of peer-to-peer interconnection to enable to creation of ad hoc teams. All of these changes will demand more system resources.
During 2002-04, we expect significant progress in bringing more natural interaction models to typical client systems. This will include speech, handwriting, and visual input. On the output side, the current GUI will be extended to deal with the flood of new data types entering the market. We expect that, by 2005, PCs will devote as much as 90% of their processing power to user interaction. This will enable users to become less aware of the PC as a device, and enable the PC to play a greater role in daily activities. Even in cases where the PC is continually connected to the network with significant data and application logic on a server, we expect some application and much of the interface logic to exist on the client.
For business users, we believe the added value (i.e., management cost savings, increased productivity, improved collaboration) of these and other PC enhancements, enabled by ongoing increases in processing power, will continue to justify the price difference ($150-$300) between two similarly configured systems from a top-tier manufacturer - one with a higher-end processor and another with a trailing-edge processor. On a typical business lease, this results in a difference of between $4 and $8 per month per user.
User Action: Companies should draw a distinction between PC life cycles for systems already purchased vs. future purchases. During 2001/02, responding to sharp budget cutbacks, many organizations are stretching their desktop life cycles by an additional year, delaying upgrades from Windows 98 to Windows 2000 (or Windows XP). Although this may be advisable for many organizations in the short term, we expect the long-term trend of increased processing power and functionality on the desktop to counter any pressure to permanently lengthen PC life cycles.
Although three-year upgrade cycles have long been the standard corporate best practice, some companies have always lived with longer desktop lifetimes - four or even five years. Whether organizations and consumers can live with a longer life cycle depends on several issues, including the needs of individual end users. The question is how many end users within an organization would benefit from the capabilities of an updated PC, operating system, and application versions.
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Regardless of how long their PC life cycle is, organizations should avoid fragmenting their user base between different operating systems and application versions. The more variations in the PC image that the IT organization must support, the more complex and expensive that support becomes. As the power and capabilities of client systems continue to increase, organizations must continue to periodically refresh their PC fleets based on the best practices that have evolved during the past two decades.
META Group analysts Steve Kleynhans, Mike Gotta, Jack Gold, Val Sribar, Jeffrey Mann, Timothy Hickernell, David Folger, Thomas Murphy, Dale Kutnick, Chris Byrnes, and John Brand contributed to this article.