How are desktop PCs still thriving in enterprise IT?

A recent study shows spending on desktop computers will top 2016 IT hardware investments. So where are all those deskbound devices going? And why?

Spiceworks State of IT survey 2016 desktop PCs top priority
Credit: Thinkstock

At my company, and those of most people I know, just about everyone works on a laptop these days. Here in the Bay Area tech community, desktop computers can sometimes seem like an endangered species.

So I was pretty surprised when the recent SpiceWorks 2016 State of IT survey listed desktops as the top IT hardware spending priority of 2015, and even more so for 2016. Sure, the numbers are only 20% for 2015, rising a smidge to 21% next year. But that's still enough to top every other category, including servers (19%) and laptops (13% to 16%).

spiceworks graph Spiceworks

What are desktop computers good for?

Even the SpiceWorks report questions the longevity of this trend, but the big questions for me are who is buying all these desktop computers and what are they doing with them?

I see some Mac Minis around running the big monitors in tech-company conference rooms. And I know people who use desktops as their base computer at home (I have a Mac Mini for just that purpose, plus an old Windows machine that no one seems to have the heart to throw out). I know the occasional designer who swears by her iMac and plenty of architects who rely on desktop Windows machines to run programs like AutoCad and Revit.

But that doesn't seem like nearly enough use cases to account for the survey results. Somewhere, giant traditional enterprises must still be investing in fleets of desktop PCs for their workforces. Forgive me for asking, but why?

Surely these companies know that the war between desktops and mobile is over, and that mobile won? Sure, desktops cost a little less than equivalent laptops, and they have the power to handle more complex tasks than tablets and mobile phones can.

Mobile has already won

But the price premium for portable is no longer very large, and the business world has long recognized the productivity benefits of the mobility and flexibility offered by office Wi-Fi. Merely avoiding the cost of pulling cable to accommodate moves and changes more than compensates for any additional up-front costs. 

At the same time, it's now clear that much of the biggest software development efforts these days is being put into creating mobile apps and websites, not desktop programs (which would all run just as well on a laptop anyway).

I don't dispute the Spiceworks survey, but I think it's way past time for an IT mindset adjustment. Just as IT increasingly turns to cloud-first methodologies that require a good reason to put any new workload on an on-premise server, we should have a mobile-first attitude that requires a good reason to fill a need with anything other than a portable device—a phone first, then a tablet, and finally a laptop.

Only in cases where a desktop is specifically called for (perhaps for its power, perhaps for security, maybe for cost savings) would they be authorized. I predict that such a mindset would instantly cut the desktop's portion of top hardware spending priorities in half, from about one-fifth now to one-tenth or less. And it might have a significant impact on productivity, too.

But hey, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself here. Please feel free to use the comments to share desktop computing use cases that I'm missing and that still make sense in 2016.

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