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Dell outlines plans to build the best commercial PC

Dell World 2015
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If you heard Michael Dell speak at Dell World, you would have guessed the PC business is booming, and not slumping like what the numbers may have you believe. After addressing the big EMC acquisition news, executives re-affirmed their commitment to the personal computing space by saying that the PC business is core to Dell.

This is a stark contrast to the performance of the industry as a whole. Chip-maker Intel reported a 19% decline in processor shipment volumes this past quarter compared to a year ago, and Windows 10-maker Microsoft reported that revenues of its personal computing division fell by 17%.

"There's still growth in the enterprise PC space," said Raza Haider, Executive Director of Dell's Commercial PC Product Group. "These devices are important to businesses as a way to recruit, hire and retain human capital."

A tool for recruiting

Dell's engineering and design team followed users around their home and offices to find out how they use their PCs. These devices aren't just about doing work, Mr. Razza explained. The devices help companies recruit talent, as people don't want to work for organizations that hands out black bricks for laptops at work.

Dell Chromebook 13

The devices also must address the changes in the way people work. Most people, don't just work at their desks any more. In fact, 35% of office workers are considered corridor warriors, or those who migrate between offices and rooms in a building. 20% of people work from home and 15-20% are mobile road warriors.

The devices must fit into the way people work, and people want sleek devices, Mr. Razza added. The message is similar to the conclusion that rival HP made.

Three pillars of a business notebook

For a commercial PC to be successful, Dell found that the devices must fulfill three pillars. First, it must satisfy the security and manageability needs of IT. Second, users must want to use it, and this is driven by design and a simple user interface and experience. And lastly, peripherals must be designed around the device to help users be more productivity. This includes laptop docks, hubs, printers, displays and mice.

To create commercial PCs that satisfy these pillars, Dell begins the design process 16 to 20 months before the systems are released. Most of the innovations for commercial systems start on the consumer side, and Mr. Haider says that it may take up to 12 months for consumer innovations to trickle into commercial designs.

Dell XPS 13

One such example of this is the carbon fiber lid design that was widely popular on Dell's consumer XPS 13 system. The carbon fiber material is now found on Dell's commercial Latitude 12 7000 Series (E7250) notebook.

The desktop isn't dead

Even though users are beginning to look at laptops as their sole PCs given innovations in design, breakthroughs in performance and increase in graphics and processor speeds, the desktop is still very much alive.

Dell claims that more than 40% of users still use a desktop PC, and to address their needs, Dell announced a refresh to its OptiPlex commercial PC portfolio at Dell World 2015.

OptiPlex

So why are we seeing a renaissance in desktop computers? There are actually three trends that fuel the growth in interest in desktops.

First, small form factor PCs deliver similar performance to larger desktop towers thanks to processing improvements delivered from Intel Skylake. Second, small form factor and micro form factor PCs take up less space. An employee today has 56% less square feet of workspace today than just a decade ago, Mr. Haider said. These devices are also inexpensive conference room solutions with Intel Unite technology.

And third, there is growing interest in the all-in-one (AIO) category. These devices come with slimmer, more attractive designs and better performance.

Fueling the enterprise growth

Given that Dell plans its technology design two years in advance, I asked Mr. Haider what will fuel the PC renaissance in the enterprise space. The answer: Windows 10 and the capabilities that Microsoft's operating system delivers.

Even though Windows 10 is now installed on over 110 million devices, according to Microsoft, many businesses still have not upgraded their existing systems to the latest OS version or purchased new devices pre-loaded with Windows 10. Mr. Haider says that his customers will begin testing Windows 10 systems next year, and wide-scale deployment is expected in 2017.

When businesses begin adopting Windows 10, Mr. Haider optimistically said that we should begin to see new ways to interact with our devices beyond just touch. This includes voice, inking and cameras.

We may also see new form factors arise. Also, for the two-in-one market, there isn't a consensus yet between a convertible with a 360-degree hinge or a detachable, and we may begin seeing which form factor is preferred.

Windows 10

There may also be new wireless technologies for conferencing and collaboration to address the changing needs of computing users.

In addition to computers, Dell is also working on delivering a PC experience on thin clients through its Wyse workstation-in-the-cloud model.

Inking and the pen

Dell is beginning to standardize on the Wacom active stylus technology for inking on its pen-enabled tablets. Mr. Haider said that Dell is already starting to experiment on nibs for its stylus to give users a more realistic writing experience, something that Microsoft recently announced with its Surface Pen for the Surface Pro 4 with interchangeable nibs.

Even though Dell isn't using the same N-Trig-based pen technology as Microsoft, Mr. Haider said that the two companies are working closely together better inking integration. Dell has no plans on creating its own inking software, app or solution. Dell's investment in this space is in hardware.

When asked what the best use for a digital pen would be, Mr. Haider pointed to my notepad, saying that business people who prefer to take handwritten notes can save time when they do it digitally as they won't have to transcribe it. Digital inking gives people the best of both worlds, and with an improved pen nib that gives people a truer pen-to-paper feel, more notes could be captured digitally without a keyboard.

Materials and design

To be successful, Mr. Haider said that Dell has to differentiate by design. The computing market isn't about categorizing devices as consumers or enterprise. In fact, the BYOD movement hasn't really worked because it introduced new security challenges and nightmares for IT, Mr. Haider explained, and the solution is really about creating sleek devices with security that business users will want to use.

In designing these systems, Dell has opted to invest heavily in carbon fiber, which was a challenge initially. When Dell launched the original XPS 13, carbon fiber supply was heavily constrained because Boeing used up the bulk of the supply on its Dreamliner jet.

Latitude 12

Dell had to work with a new supplier, and initial yield of usable carbon fiber was less than 1%. Mr. Haider explained that unlike other uses of carbon fiber, Dell required the material to be molded and embedded with antennas and other components. Now, the yield is significantly higher, and Dell will be switching from aerospace carbon fiber to space-grade carbon fiber, which will make the laptops even lighter.

Dell is also invested in carbon fiber recycling to create a new material called carbon fiber recyclable plastics (CFRP). This process mixes wasted carbon fiber into plastics to create a stronger material that can be used in less premium notebooks, like the mid-range Latitude 5000 Series.

In fact, the old carbon-fiber shell on discarded notebooks could also be recycled. Essentially, it's a process very similar to what Apple is doing, claiming that its machined aluminum Macs are highly recyclable. For CFRP notebooks, "the carbon fiber within the plastic most likely wouldn't be recovered during the recycling process, but would go through polycarbonate (PC) recycling," Dell said in a statement.

It's curious as to why Dell isn't making the carbon fiber recycling program a larger part of the Latitude's story, but it's good to see Dell showing its corporate social responsibility to the environment. For its recycling program, Mr. Haider said that Dell won two circular economy awards.

Carbon fiber is an ideal choice for us today, Mr. Haider said, noting that the material is good at heat dissipation and is light.

When asked if Dell is considering the use of metal on its notebooks, like what Apple is doing on the MacBook or HP is doing on the enterprise-class EliteBook Folio 1020 G1, Mr. Haider coyly responded by saying that the company is exploring options and user tastes.