Time to rethink the PC

Desktop PCs have been a blessing and a curse since the day they arrived. Here’s how to make living with them a little easier.

For as long as many people can remember, desktop PCs have been a fixture on the office desktop, right there next to the phone, stack of yellow sticky pads and vinyl-covered can full of pens.

Office automation by means of client/server computing — with the desktop PC in a starring role — started going mainstream about a quarter century ago. And from that point on, information technology managers and budgeteers in charge of buying and taking care of those desktop computers have been plotting ways to make them disappear. Or, if not that, trying to minimize the costly problems the computers create.

Though prices have come down during the past 25 years, a desktop PC’s price is still not insignificant. But the real financial hit comes in the staff time and management infrastructure required to set them up, secure them, protect their data and fix them when they break, which, unfortunately, happens still too often.

A shop that’s really good at overseeing desktop PCs might spend as much as $3,413 per year for the four-year average life of a PC, on top of the original $1,200 purchase price, according to a 2008 report from research firm Gartner. That annual expense can run as high as $5,867 per PC for IT shops that aren’t as skilled.

For those who use laptop computers as their primary desktop computing device, it’s even worse because of the extra risks and wear and tear associated with mobility. The annual support bill can run from $5,033 to just more than $9,900, depending on the IT department’s management expertise.

So it’s no surprise that agency executives are always on the lookout for ways to reduce those costs, improve security and, perhaps most importantly, make sure users have tools that best help them do their jobs. That duty includes tracking new technologies that might redefine what a PC can be and how people use them.

Apple’s new iPad tablet computer, as popular as it might now be among individual consumers, is just the latest of those kinds of head-turning products, even within the government. It might well be that agency IT execs are motivated by the recent memory of how Apple’s iPhone sparked a new category of mobile computing or by fears that employees will buy their own iPads and connect them to government networks. But the fact is officials are taking the iPad seriously and coming up with game plans for its use.

In this report, we look at the iPad and its potential for government use, in addition to a survey of five other approaches to reinventing the desktop computer, including how two of the hotter topics these days, virtualization and cloud computing, will fit into those strategies.

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