All-in-one, but none for all

For years, the design of PC hardware has evolved towards a compact, all-in-one model whereby chassis melds with monitor, displays are flattened and become much more flexible than their cathode ray tube (CRT) predecessors. Every time this happens the vendor in question behaves as though this were

an entirely new concept, while usually such models are merely variations on a common theme. But the main problem is not a lack of originality, it’s a lack of buyers.

IBM acknowledged this recently with the decision to kill off its NetVista X after only two years. This was the one where the PC/flat panel monitor combination was rigged up on a sort of movable crane, though I have no idea why the average user would want to swivel it farther than a few inches one way or another. Apple Computer, which achieved something similar with its most recent iMac, has experienced sluggish sales despite fawning accolades from even non-Mac users. Compaq had barely gotten its Evo D500 utlra-slim desktop off the ground before the whole HP merger craziness stopped its momentum short. It is unlikely you will find any of these machines making up the majority of a corporate enterprise’s desktop fleet.

There are technical arguments that can be made in favour of the all-in-one theory, like centralized management and lower cost of production, but most vendors know it’s all about looks. I got to see the NetVista X before it was officially launched in Canada, when about eight senior Big Blue execs came to Toronto to discuss its long-term product roadmap. They showed me embedded security chips and specially-designed IBM smart cards (who knows what happened there), but in the end I had our photographer focus on a close-up shot of IBM Canada personal systems products manager Jeff Fyall next to one of the monitors on a crane.

Supposedly the great benefit behind these PCs is the amount of space they free up, which always makes me imagine the days when PCs did not dominate so many desktops. I recently finished reading William Dean Howell’s The Rise of Silas Lapham, for example. The title character is the newly rich owner of a paint business, and though it is not described in great detail, it is clear he had plenty of room in front of him. At one point as he leaves his office he finds his secretary shivering in her coat, because the outer office isn’t warm enough. He lets her use his while he’s gone — and she brings her manual typewriter in with her to place on his desk. The book was published in 1885.

Today, we have placed an enormous emphasis on consolidating our most important work-related information on computers, to the point where they parallel the television’s place in our living rooms as the centre of our work experiences. As usage has increased, many users also risk putting personal data on their desktops as well. For these professionals, more desk space may not be a huge priority. What are they going to do with it — create a bigger in-basket of documents they’ll never read? Place more framed photos on the desk instead of simply changing their screensaver whenever they want?

If nothing else, the movement towards an all-in-one reflected an exciting approach by vendors to design their way out what was to become the PC slump. On the other hand, in doing so they follow in the footsteps of Brother, Lexmark and printer vendors who tried to combine phones, faxes and scanners into single devices. These devices seldom lived up to user or sales expectations either, and they were a sure sign of their products’ transition to commodity items. With better security and easier upgrades, PCs would avoid this trap a few years yet. Users may simply want to retain the freedom to mix and match chassis, monitors and other components as they choose. All-in-ones may take some of the headaches away, but they also take away some of the fun.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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