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The rapidly disappearing personal computer

A shopper looks at Sony Corp's Vaio PCs at an electronics retail store in Tokyo February 5, 2014. Sony Corp is in talks with investment fund Japan Industrial Partners to sell its loss-making Vaio personal computer division, a source familiar with the matter said on Wednesday. (Yuya Shino/Reuters)

The headquarters of iCore Networks has not seen a desktop computer in five years.

Instead, each of the McLean-based information-technology firm’s 160 employees relies on a company-issued iPad. They may request a Dell laptop if they need it, but iCore is free of the bulky personal computers common to many offices, opting for devices employees can take home with them.

“We’re pretty mobile — throughout multiple departments such as sales teams, account management, engineers, [employees] are always on the go,” said Lorena Roberts, marketing vice president. “They begin at the office, maybe in the morning, but by the time 11 o’clock hits, they’re really out in the field.”

The company is part of an emerging trend among businesses eschewing PCs for laptops and tablets. The pattern is reflected in the global computer market: PC shipments suffered their worst decline in history in the final quarter of 2013, according to a Gartner report, the seventh consecutive quarter of shipment declines. The 82.6 million units shipped globally last year represented an almost 7 percent decline from the previous year.

Losses in the PC sector were enough to force consumer tech giant Sony to exit the market altogether. The company announced plans last week to sell Vaio, its PC brand, to Japan Industrial Partners, citing declining sales.

ICore buys about 15 laptops each quarter for new hires, Roberts estimated, enough for about 75 percent of the employees. All iPads are installed with iCore’s proprietary software, which it sells to other businesses, allowing users to manage phone calls and video chat requests. The machines also come loaded with Microsoft’s virtual desktop software, which allows employees to remotely access programs on their laptops. They can access e-mail, use Microsoft Office and complete any other computer task, Roberts said.

For those tasks that are easier to complete with a larger screen or a mouse — such as compiling Excel spreadsheets or working in Photoshop — employees often keep laptops as backup. Although maintenance, software licenses and hardware costs make laptops significantly more expensive than tablets, iCore continues to invest in them to offer employees “that sense of security you have with your laptop that people are used to.”

Some analysts say that the steady decline in PCs partly reflects the relatively high price of tablets, making it an either-or proposition for some buyers. Gartner analyst Mikako Kitagawa recently wrote that as tablet and laptop prices decline, PC sales might improve, because more people can own both.

Tablet sales, meanwhile, are rising quickly. Almost 80 million tablets were shipped globally in the fourth quarter of 2013, according to an International Data Corp. report, representing a 62.4 percent growth over the previous quarter and a 28.2 percent growth since the corresponding period the year before.

Still, PCs remain a necessary part of office routine for many workers. Jeremy Collins, who runs the sales division at Consolidated Communications, a Sacramento, Calif.-based Internet and cable company, issued his 24 sales representatives iPad minis to accompany — not replace — their PCs.

Although they often use tablets when visiting the residential neighborhoods where they sell cable connections, employees spend about 30 percent of each day answering and logging customer-service requests from their PCs, Collins said. Some customer-service requests are easier to address when employees have large, dual screen monitors, he said — and some have more data stored on their computers’ hard drives than could fit on a tablet.

Collins said the team tried using Dell laptops to offer employees the functionality of a PC in a device they could use at their desks and in the field, but “laptops aren’t realistic. You can’t carry a laptop around with you when you’re walking around territory,” he said. Employees complained that they had to leave the laptops in their cars.

So last year, Collins decided to get rid of the laptops and invest in tablets, while maintaining the PCs for office use. “It’s more of a convenience factor,” he said. “If you’re already sitting down at your desk [in front of a PC], you’re going to be a lot quicker navigating through everything you have to navigate.”



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