Business PC, personal PC: What’s the diff?

The lines between commercial and consumer IT may be blurring, but Gartner Inc. wants to make sure technology professionals continue to see clearly.

At a recent event in Australia, one of the research firm’s vice-presidents, Leslie Fiering, warned enterprises against trying to stretch their budget dollars by buying lower-cost consumer PCs and notebooks. The danger, she said, is that such products don’t have the stabile configuration you need as a business to provide a consistent desktop image. The quality isn’t there, she suggested, and as an IT manager you don’t want to end up on the same 1-800 support line as every other Joe Blow. By raising the alarm on this trend, however, Fiering also raises the question of why we even have such distinct lines of hardware anymore.

In the long term, for example, aren’t consumers going to expect the same level of quality control that goes into a corporate PC? As components come down in price the look and feel of most business and commercial machines are barely distinguishable. There are still differences in processor speed, perhaps, and occasionally some more sophisticated built-in security on corporate desktops, but you can’t blame customers for wondering what exactly they’re paying for.

“I can get a HP dv200t for around $1230 (Duo 2.0 Ghz, 1GB RAM, Go 7200, DVD RW etc) while the HP NC 6400 (Duo 2.0, 1GB RAM, x1400, DVD-RW) is easily $300 more for the same,” a notebook user wrote on an industry forum. “Considering that a business model will last longer and is better built, but a consumer model costs about 30 percent less… can a person expect to get 30 percent more use out of a business line to justify the cost?”

The answer is probably not. It depends, of course, on what kind of changes that machine would go through as part of various upgrades in an enterprise setting. But Fiering’s point is that you buy a business machine so that major changes will go unnoticed. To the naked eye, that PC is just a PC. The higher price tag for business users is the insurance (or assurance) of a better warranty.

Fiering also makes the case for users that buy their own PCs and notebooks, and recommends they do so from a list of pre-approved IT department configurations. That’s bound to rankle users that do more with their desktop technology than crunch spreadsheets, however. The multimedia features inside many consumer PCs do eventually make their way into business environments, as do consumer behaviors such as using social networking technology or tuning into video or audio materials for collaboration.

Either way you look at it, choosing a business or consumer PC is starting to feel like accepting a second-class system. The business machine may be safer but lacks useful features. The consumer machine may be cheaper and more user-friendly but could come with a higher total cost of ownership. Maybe this is where we could learn from more modern computing clients, like the cell phone. In a few years no one will make a distinction between a business phone or a personal handset. The use cases, the expectations and the feature sets will be relatively the same, if they aren’t already. No one wants a tradeoff, and eventually OEMs will have to ensure that users don’t have to accept one.

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