The Mobility Myth

Bob O'Donnell / April 15th, 2014

The near constant discussion of mobility and various types of mobile computing can easily give people the impression nobody cares about or uses anything but tablets, smartphones and notebooks. In reality however, that viewpoint couldn’t be further from the truth, especially when it comes to business use of various computing devices.

On a regular, day-to-day basis, the device that doesn’t just lead but dominates the usage of US business employees is the good ol’ desktop PC. Yes, even today.”

On a regular, day-to-day basis, the device that doesn’t just lead but dominates the usage of US business employees is the good ol’ desktop PC. Yes, even today. In fact, just last week my firm TECHnalysis Research completed a survey of 750 people employed across three company sizes: small (10-99 employees); medium (100-999) and large (1,000+). The group consisted of a mix of employees (150 per company size) and IT decision makers (100 per company size). The primary purpose of the study was a pulse check on the current state of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) programs—more details on that in next week’s column—but part of the survey questionnaire also covered basic issues around what devices people used to do their work.

Both employees and IT decision makers were asked to select from a list of choices which devices they or the employees at their companies used to do any aspect of work related to their jobs. The results, as shown in the chart below, may be somewhat surprising.

BYOD Devices Used Chart

© 2014, TECHnalysis Research, LLC

Though the numbers differ between the two groups, both employees and IT decision makers put company purchased desktop PCs as the most commonly used devices in their organizations. For employees, personally purchased smartphones were a reasonably close second, while IT department representatives thought those were a distant third and company-purchased notebooks were second. Interestingly, IT decision makers believed personally purchased tablets were in higher use than employees actually said—and by a decent margin. Apparently, IT has bought into the myth of the tablet’s enormous role in business even more than the IT press has led them to believe.

And let’s not forget this data comes from the US—the most mobile-focused and tablet-friendly market in the entire world. If you were to ask these questions to employees and IT folks in companies around the world, the results would be even more lopsided towards PCs and desktops in particular.

But the story for PCs in business gets even better. Employee respondents were then asked to divide their total work time across the list of available devices—in other words, not only what they use, but how often they use it. These results, which represent the average percentage of the work day each device is used across a sample of 450 employees, are telling.

Overall Device Usage Chart

© 2014, TECHnalysis Research, LLC

Here, the work purchased desktop PC, and PCs overall, absolutely dominate. Even if you add together both personal and work purchased tablets and 2-in-1 devices (which are arguably PCs anyway), the total time spent on tablets is only 9% on average, with smartphones taking up another 13.3%. The remaining 77.7% is spent working on PCs, with desktops representing just over 50% of all time spent on computing devices. While arguably that number is down from 100%, it’s still a staggeringly lopsided battle that shows the PC is far from dead in business environments and the potential fear of tablet cannibalization on business PCs was (and still is) dramatically overblown.

Just to put a cherry on top of this week’s PC cake, the survey also asked IT decision makers about their plans for future internal application development by both device type and platform. The final option in each case was to say the company was not currently planning to develop applications for a given device type. The results? Only 7% of respondents said they were not planning to build any new PC applications, but 12% said they had no new plans for smartphone applications, and 13% said they had no new plans for tablet applications.

To be clear, mobility and mobile devices are a critical part of today’s business computing landscape. But the level of coverage and focus they receive is clearly out of line with the frequency of their actual usage. That’s a point that’s easy to forget, but definitely worth remembering.

Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.
  • capnbob67

    The lack of comments might be the best indication of the value of this analysis. It all sounds rosy for PCs but anyone with an ounce of sense or experience in enterprise IT knows that this just isn’t true. Suggesting that reports of the PC’s total death are exaggerated is different than saying that PC’s are not declining and losing relevance and value.

    The key issues for PCs in the enterprise is not that 77% of work is done on them (5 years ago it was 100%), but what the perceived/real value, extended upgrade cycles, the platform-neutral web-app trend in enterprise applications, etc. means for them. Perceived/real value is low (just look at the cheap, old, desktops still in use across most enterprises, that many users heavily dislike), upgrade cycles are extending because there is no need for more power than a P4 or C2D for the majority of enterprise apps and if you look at the application modernization programs across major enterprises, it is largely web-based, platform neutral, and often refactoring for the cloud. None of this supports the PC’s future. The primary benefit of the PC at this stage is that you can use a large monitor or 3 to give these very clumsy enterprise apps enough real estate to work properly. Where is the analysis on PC spend as a proportion of all HW and all IT? That would tell you something more useful.

    Desktop management is very expensive (though highly entrenched) and ITDMs are still grasping their past relevance as they totally struggle with a much more complex, advanced and human-lite future enterprise IT environment. A little less PC whitewash and more predictive insights would be appreciated.

    • Bob O’Donnell

      I certainly agree that PCs face challenges in the future, but the key point here is that they are still extremely important and very widely used now. Are your points legitimate? Yes, definitely, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the tech press’s focus on tablets in business does paint a picture that just isn’t true either. My goal was to present a reality check based on sound research that I conducted which shows that in the business world, PCs are still in very wide use, despite what everyone has been led to believe.

  • AhmadZainiChia

    Great article, gives some important context. I knew that desktop PC’s were dominant in business, but I didn’t know it was THAT dominant.

    The flip side is that, the smartphone/tablet revolution js really just a revolution in the consumer space; as many writers even at Techpinions has written, the iPad was the first truly ‘personal’ computer – a computer truly made for the mass market.

    • Bob O’Donnell

      Thanks. Yes, things are very different in the consumer side of the world and that’s part of the reason that consumer PC sales have been stumbling.

      • Walt French

        Yes, desktop PCs have been honed to at-your-desk work tasks for 30 years now, and they’re really good at it. And really inexpensive, since there’s such a clear, stable mass market. And the jobs that people DO at desks haven’t changed much since we started using the internet over a decade ago, and they don’t need 50% more processing speed each year as a result, further allowing for a highly efficient market.

        But the devices are so tuned to the desktop that they’re really a mismatch for those of us who like to stay current on the news, or our email or our friends, while on the train. Or, for taking one of those stupid 2-column-formatted PDFs into a meeting, and trying to read it at 50% size on a landscape-formatted laptop.

        And frankly, business is all about doing new things; robots or robot processes can more efficiently pick up a package or branch financials, off the assembly line and send it to Corporate. Doing business (or personal business) in new ways often fits badly into the old model that is set up for last year’s MO. A cheaper competitor can do that old stuff; if you’re not looking to tomorrow, you’re likely to find yourself stuck out of business, with your very low-cost computers, not used except for writing resumes.

  • Tom Gall

    More work needs to be done. There is no break down between Desktop PCs and Laptops. Certainly that is an important demographic that is missing within this mix. This companies surveyed aren’t broken down by industry or office setting. This work really tries to paint a rosy picture for PCs, yet of the devices used for work, personally purchased tablets are already 1/2 of work purchased desktop PCs?? That’s an interesting data point where some historical trend lines would help to give context to affirm or discredit their use over time.

    • Bob O’Donnell

      I do include the desktop/notebook mix, actually. It’s 50% for desktops and the remaining 27.7% for notebooks. I did not include breakdowns by company size or industry, which I do have, because it would be too much for a single column. What I can tell you is the differences on this question by company size are not large–in the range of a percentage point or two either way. I have not done breakdowns by industry because I have almost 25 different industries represented (not all equally–that’s very difficult to do) and so some of the n-sizes would be too small to be statistically valid.
      To your later point, yes, people do use lots of different devices to occasionally do work on and that mix continues to get more diverse, but in terms of total time spent, that’s where the PC’s role is still important.

  • Sam

    “To be clear, mobility and mobile devices are a critical part of today’s business computing landscape. But the level of coverage and focus they receive is clearly out of line with the frequency of their actual usage. That’s a point that’s easy to forget, but definitely worth remembering.”

    You could blame Wallstreet or bloggers love for Facebook, Twitter, Google. Etc..

    Those platforms are being monetized more on a smartphone than a locked down corporate PC. Microsoft makes more money than Dell, HP, etc… On a PC sale.

    Facebook makes more money from an addictive user on a Samsung phone, than Dell makes selling a corporate desktop, in one year. Facebook gets the same revenue the next year from the phone, while Dell makes nothing unless there is a support contract.

    If that is the same user, in two years, Facebook makes more money than Dell and MS combined, and the computer won’t be replaced for 5 years while the mobile hardware makers will sell a new phone every two years.

    That is why most people are bore with the PC Industry ( I’m still interested ).

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