The Commercial Opportunity for the Always-Connected PC

At the Always-Connected PC launch event earlier this week, Microsoft and Qualcomm seemed to focus a great deal of their attention on the consumer opportunity for these new Snapdragon-based Windows computers. While there is certainly a market for this technology among some percentage of consumers, I would argue that the larger near-term opportunity is in the commercial segment where connectivity and long battery-life drive real-world productivity gains and measurable cost benefits.

Connected Consumer?
Carolina Milanesi discussed the launch event in detail earlier this week, including some of the ongoing app issues Microsoft faces as well as the challenges associated with convincing consumers to pay for the carrier service required for an always-connected PC. Beyond these roadblocks, there’s this additional fundamental issue: Many consumers, with students being the exception, tend to use their PCs in one place: Inside their house. In other words, ultra-long battery life, and LTE connectivity are both nice to have, but not critical to a large percentage of consumer PC users.

However, for highly mobile workers, those two features are the holy grail of productivity. I travel extensively for work, and while today’s modern PCs offer substantially more battery life than ever before, I still often find myself working around my PC’s battery limitations. Sometimes it’s a 13-hour trip to Asia, where I do the important work up front, constantly eyeing the battery life indicator as it slides toward zero. Other times it’s running from one presentation to another, invariably forced to plug in before the last meeting, so the PC doesn’t die mid-presentation. The idea of a notebook that runs for 20 hours between charges is a game changer for users like me. The prospect of going days at a time between charges sounds almost too good to be true.

Likewise, there’s the issue of connectivity. Invariably somebody will point out that you can always connect to your phone as a hotspot, and yes that is an option. But it’s a task that takes time and effort to do, which can be problematic in some back-to-back meeting scenarios. And when you’re connecting like this, in an ad hoc way, everything must update at once, which means a flood of emails, etc. And tethering invariably leads to a secondary issue: Running down your smartphone battery. After years of carrying an LTE-enabled iPad, the benefits of an integrated LTE connection are quite clear to me.

Another interesting feature of these new PCs is their instant-on capability. Today’s PCs boot up and resume from sleep much faster than ever before, but they’re still far from instantaneous. The idea of a PC that wakes at the speed of a smartphone has clear productivity benefits.

Cost Savings and Challenges
So it’s clear that a subset of commercial users would embrace the opportunity to use an Always-Connected PC. Convincing their companies these devices are a cost-effective idea is the next challenge. But that’s not difficult when you can articulate the productivity advantages of outfitting high-output mobile employees with these devices. And yes, there is a monthly cost associated with connecting them to the network, but that cost can be rather quickly justified when you consider the ongoing costs many employees accrue while traveling and connecting to fee-based WiFi networks in hotels and other locations. Plus, there are the real-world security issues associated with connecting to random WiFi networks in the wild. And an LTE notebook might also drive cost savings for companies who have full-time remote employees that currently expense their home office broadband connections.

Probably the bigger challenge here is convincing old-school IT departments to try a non-Intel/non VPro-enabled Windows PC. These folks will also likely balk at the idea of Windows 10 S (the shipping OS on the initial launch devices, which is upgradeable to Windows 10 Pro). Some will also cringe when they hear that 32-bit X86 apps run via emulation (and 64-bit apps aren’t compatible). Finally—and this is the most reasonable pushback—many will need to see real-world benchmarks that prove these systems are competitive with today’s X86-based systems for the use cases in question.

While some of these IT departments will likely pilot some of these new consumer-focused products, others will undoubtedly wait until Microsoft, Qualcomm, and their hardware partners move to ship more commercial-focused products. Others will undoubtedly wait to see how commercial LTE-enabled systems based on Intel’s 8th generation processors compare to Windows on Qualcomm. And that may well be the most exciting result of the news this week. With Qualcomm focused on the Windows PC segment, AMD resurgent in the space, and Intel working hard to sustain its position, all Windows PC users—consumer and commercial—will eventually benefit, and I can’t wait to test the first systems. Likewise, it will be interesting to see the eventual response from competing platforms such as Google’s Chrome OS and Apple’s MacOS.

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Tom Mainelli

Tom Mainelli has covered the technology industry since 1995. He manages IDC's Devices and Displays group, which covers a broad range of hardware categories including PCs, tablets, smartphones, thin clients, displays, and wearables. He works closely with tech companies, industry contacts, and other analysts to provide in-depth insight and analysis on the always-evolving market of endpoint devices and their related services. In addition to overseeing the collection of historical shipment data and the forecasting of shipment trends in cooperation with IDC's Tracker organization, he also heads up numerous primary research initiatives at IDC. Chief among them is the fielding and analysis of IDC's influential, multi-country Consumer and Commercial PC, Tablet, and Smartphone Buyer Surveys. Mainelli is also driving new research at IDC around the technologies of augmented and virtual reality.

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