Buying PCs

What do you look for in a new desktop PC? A big, bright screen? Zippy new processor? Capacious hard drive? Acres of RAM? Sorry, none of these is a real concern for corporate PC buyers. What they're looking for probably isn't even in the machine.

Numerous studies have shown that the price of a new computer is only a small part of the total cost of ownership (TCO). Support, maintenance and other intangibles contribute far more heavily to the sum. Those who buy desktop computers by the tens, hundreds or thousands have taken this lesson to heart. When they go shopping, therefore, their list of desired features has very little to do with hardware. Smart vendors are paying attention to this and adjusting their offerings accordingly.

Hardware Necessities

Corporate buyers recognize that certain aspects of candidate PCs are essential, including the following:

Solid performance at reasonable price. Whenever you see magazine reviews of PCs, one editor's choice will inevitably be a supermachine to die for: primo components, primo design, at a primo price. Just turn the page. Corporate buyers know that their users probably aren't mapping the human genome or plotting trajectories to Saturn. They're doing word processing, order entry, sales contact management, programming and other essential business tasks. They need solid, competent machines at a reasonable price, not the latest whiz-bang. "Mainstream machines from respected vendors are going to do the job fine," says Bob Jorgenson, a spokesman for The Boeing Co. in Seattle. Buyers know that, so they're not looking for more.

Operating-system-ready. "A change in operating system is the most disruptive upgrade an enterprise has to face," says Paul Neilson, vice president of technical support at Monster.com, an online job-placement service in Maynard, Mass. That's why many corporate buyers want their machines to be able to handle current operating systems and anticipated new ones. While many enterprises use Windows 9x or NT, they must be able to make a possible transition to Windows 2000 or Me. In addition, any planning for three to five years into the future must take into account the appearance of even newer operating systems. Primarily, that means having sufficient hard disk space and RAM. What constitutes "sufficient" is in the eye of the buyer and not in the rosy "minimum requirements" offered by operating system vendors.

Connectivity. Networked machines are a given in corporate life, and Internet-worked machines are becoming a given. Buyers need machines equipped with reliable network interface cards or even wireless LAN capabilities. "With fewer cables to worry about, wireless LANs contribute to the flexibility of the workplace and the simplicity of PC deployment," says Matt Heller, vice president of operations at GoTo.com Inc. in Pasadena, Calif., which provides online search services to tens of thousands of affiliate partners and has more than 30,000 advertisers. Many organizations are planning for Internet-based applications and need machines ready to make fast, reliable and secure connections. "Connection performance and ports are prime factors for us," says Chris Carrara, IT manager at Sartorius AG, a global lab technology manufacturer in Goettingen, Germany.

Laptops as desktops. Notebook computers, whether docked to a keyboard and external monitor or used au naturel, are supplanting traditional desktops as the standard office machine at many companies. The reasons include flexibility, mobility and productivity. "We're growing our business. It's easier for IS to hand an employee a notebook than to install a desktop," says Heller. If employees need to move within a facility, or even to a new facility, it's simpler for them to pick up their notebook and go there than it is to pack, ship and reconnect a desktop. "Notebooks make it possible for employees to remain productive when away from the office, whether at home or on the road," says Jorgenson. Of course, even deskbound employees can use a notebook.

The traditional arguments against notebooks are their price compared with desktops, the rougher handling they endure and the difficulty of supporting machines away from the office. For many organizations, the higher price of laptops isn't significant given the increased productivity and ease of deployment they offer. "We look for rugged notebooks that stand up to all environments and frequent travel," says J.B. King, CIO at Fluor Signature Services, a unit of Fluor Corp., an engineering and construction firm in Aliso Viejo, Calif. Standard testing for notebook robustness is becoming part of vendors' pitches.

Finally, buyers tend to favor vendors who can demonstrate painless nationwide - and worldwide - support for their machines.

Cost Control

However compelling a machine's technology, corporate buyers won't touch it unless its vendor can satisfy essential nontechnology requirements. The following considerations all contribute to reducing total cost of ownership:

Ease of purchase and deployment. Buyers want purchasing to be an easy process, and you'd think vendors would feel the same way. However, while some vendors have made great efforts in smoothing the potholes in their ordering processes, others haven't. Vendors that offer online ordering and extranet support for customers are more appealing to buyers.

"The ability to track orders online from inception to delivery is a plus," says Joe Puglisi, CIO at Emcor Group Inc., a global construction conglomerate in Norwalk, Conn. Dell Computer Corp. is one supplier that offers such tracking. Speed of delivery aids in rapid deployment to employees, and international delivery boosts global rollouts.

Besides getting it fast, corporate buyers want to get it right, too. Vendors that offer buyer-specific hardware configurations, such as Compaq Computer Corp. and Dell, earn the gold stars here. "It's important that we are able to supply standard configurations to remote sales partners with nationwide support," says Rick Beardsley, IT director at Indoff Inc., a fast-growing drop-ship distributor in St. Louis. Software preconfiguration also saves time and ensures uniformity.

"Dell allows us to create an image of all required software - operating system, office applications, even our own customized and proprietary apps - that they then load onto machines before they ship," says Neilson. This saves the systems folks from loading and testing the software themselves before handing off to the employees.

Stable platform. All this preconfigured software isn't worth a whistle if a product line changes or, even worse, ceases production. Corporate buyers like product lines that don't change, which seems counter to the vendor tendency to constantly tweak and fiddle with machines in the never-ending race to be, momentarily, the best. "We prefer product lines that are uniform and consistent," says Puglisi.

King concurs, adding, "Ideally, we favor machines we can keep buying for at least 18 months." You can't blame them. Every component change means another driver to keep track of, another wrinkle in service and support, another potential glitch to bog down IT staffers and rev up the cost meter.

Stability is important for other reasons, too. One goal of a successful corporate PC purchase is to minimize the impact on the user. Ideally, the employee should be able to start using his new machine as soon as he gets it, with no down time or lost productivity. This implies minimal change for the user. The more the new computer looks and acts like the old computer, the better. Most buyers are shooting for a low learning curve and a simple migration. That's because organizations realize that even if they don't have a budget for new computer instruction, they still have to pay for that education. If they reduce that cost, they have a winner.

Platform stability also influences service and support, especially with regard to spare parts. "It's no good maintaining a complete inventory of spares we can rapidly swap in and out if the new machine doesn't use the same components," says Heller. Vendors who shop around to buy equivalent parts for the machines they sell may be saving money in one way. However, to corporate buyers, nothing short of identical machines will meet their criteria for simple support. They're going to look under the hood, and they'd better see the same thing every time they do.

Service and support. Corporate buyers aren't interested in 30-minute waits when they call a vendor's tech support hotline. If they don't get fast and accurate resolution of all difficulties, they'll take their business elsewhere. If a vendor has been doing its homework, it will be using the known hardware and software configurations of the machines provided. In this way, the uniformity of product line and the detailed preconfiguring of machines can work to the vendor's advantage.

Vendors like Dell shrewdly enlist the buyer's own staff to provide expert frontline service for their machines. An online system of training allows company employees to earn certified technician accreditation. This is a major win-win strategy. It allows customers to get the fastest service and support imaginable, since their own employees are providing it. That gets users up and running again fast. It also allows the vendor to minimize calls and on-site visits. The Dell program has an additional plus. "Once an Emcor employee becomes an official technician, they can order spare parts more rapidly and simply than by going through the usual channels," says Puglisi.

Vendor support should be ubiquitous. If a corporate buyer sees a vendor with only a handful of service locations, he's going to look for another vendor. Organizations want to make sure that their users can get service wherever they may be, especially on the road. Some vendors arrange for extranet support so remote users can obtain access to software and other files from the Web. That can save a lot of time and difficulties on both ends.

Global presence. Many corporations have an international presence and prefer vendors that are also global. Part of this involves support: Companies want their overseas travelers to have vendor locations nearby. However, more of it has to do with initial deployment. If a company is opening an office in a new country, managers don't want their employees twiddling their thumbs waiting for PCs shipped from the home office. They want a local vendor representative who can provide the same machine as the folks back home. Vendors that can substantiate claims to international availability have great leverage.

"One reason we chose Toshiba is their truly international scope," says GoTo.com's Heller. "As we expand globally, we can be confident our people are using the same devices and getting the same support, everywhere."

Relationship. Don't we all want someone we can trust? Corporate PC buyers are no different. They want a vendor they can build a relationship with, and that involves qualities beyond price and components. After all, a company relies on a vendor's products to support its business. Shouldn't the two parties treat their dealings with each other as more than a transaction? "One [chief technology officer] of a major outsourcing provider ranks a trustworthy and dependable relationship as one of their top criteria," says Richard Cheston, director of manageability at IBM's Personal Computing Division.

Some vendors clearly don't think so. They want to move boxes, period. However, for those vendors willing to make a commitment, corporate PC buyers are more than ready to reciprocate. They'll do almost anything to lower TCO.

DeJesus (dejesus@compuserve.com) is a freelance technical writer in Norwood, Mass.

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