Should you bother selling desktop PCs anymore?

A friend of mine, laid off from his IT job several months ago, decided

to get back into business, this time on his own. No more boss. No more

board of directors. No one else to mess up his career except himself.

He's lined up some small, and I mean small, companies as his first

clients. These are companies with 15 or fewer employees and no IT

department. For the most part, no servers. And also for the most part,

PCs and printers that should be either in a museum or dumped into the

ocean as an artificial reef. Circa 1988 Series II LaserJet printers, ELS

NetWare, co-axial cable, and even one outfit still enjoying the benefits

of its ArcNet network. Printers shared via switchboxes. Dial-up e-mail

access, often through AOL. Like the man says, if it ain't broke, don't

fix it.

Behind the times though they clearly are, these companies are ready, yet

reluctant, to move ahead, trading away that which they know and love

(and which, apparently, requires no support) for something that will

allow them to function in the modern world. And they want to do it with

no pain, no downtime, and, not surprisingly, by spending next to


My pal, anxious to pay his mortgage, is willing to work by these terms.

Networks will get upgraded, some to wireless, and most equipment will be

replaced, though not all at once.

The biggest question was whether to bother with desktop systems or go

right to notebooks. Even though few employees travel on business, many

like to do some work at home. (Whether that's a good idea is fodder for

the psychologists, not the solution providers among us.)

For $1,057, these companies can purchase brand new notebook PCs with a

15.1-inch active-matrix screen, 256MB of RAM, a 2GHz Celeron,

CD-RW/DVD-ROM, 40GB drive, integrated network adapter and modem, and

Windows XP Home Edition. We're not talking the high-end

desktop-replacement market here or the need for SNMP networks and

managed systems, but PCs of the modern age that are great for writing

documents, creating spreadsheets, running an up-to-date accounting

package, and keeping track of customers. All for $1,057! And that's

before the $100 manufacturer's mail-in rebate!

Sure, the price will rise a bit, as Microsoft Office, antivirus, and

other software is figured in, and as a port replicator, Kensington

security cable, and in some cases, full-size keyboard and mouse are

added, but this is a bargain of astonishing proportions. These users

won't be doing video editing or playing power-hungry games. This is

oodles of power for the task at hand.

For the roughly $250 premium over the price of a similarly equipped

desktop system, portability is a wonderful benefit. This wasn't always

the case. The price differential between desktop and notebook systems of

comparable power was once far greater, making the purchase of a mobile

PC logical only for a select group of road warriors.

One of these small companies decided to go ahead with a notebook-based

solution. The old network cable was ripped out, replaced by Linksys

wireless gear and a DSL connection. The biggest challenge turned out to

be migrating files, zillions of them, from the users' old systems to the

new, and then organizing them into folders. Done over a weekend, with

some Windows XP training administered over the next couple of days,

business did not come to a standstill.

And there's more. With the DSL connection, the dial-up access and

amateurish e-mail addresses can go away. With their freshly minted

dot-com domain name and an ISP, they now have e-mail addresses of which

they can be proud. And it's all for about the same price they were

paying for dial-up services. My pal has convinced the owner of this

small company to install a low-end tape backup system with software that

will reach into each PC (can you say used equipment from eBay?). I can

see centralized file storage, and simple multiuser accounting software

down the road.

Another of these small companies opted to go the desktop PC route.

Simply put, it cost less. But they did get rid of the ArcNet.

In addition to generating some income, my friend learned a valuable

lesson. After having supported a Fortune 1000 company's IT functions for

many years, he's had a rude awakening to the small-business market. It's

different. IT budgets, if they exist at all, are measured in pennies not

millions of dollars. There's no staff. There's no policy. There's no

army of XML and Java programmers building custom Web applications. Many

of these businesses have desperate needs, of which they are universally

unaware. But my friend is finding that life in the IT slow lane is less

stressful, gives him more time with his family, and is more rewarding.

And you know what happens to conscientious, hard-working, small solution

providers? They get bigger.

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