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Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Computer replacement to encourage industry upturn

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2003 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #715 July 8-14, 2003 High Tech Office column

    How old is the computer on your desk?

    It used to be that most businesses routinely replaced personal computers over a three-year cycle. That sort of thinking worked well through the 1990s, when businesses using DOS-based systems at the beginning of the decade first upgraded to use Windows 3.1, then Windows 95, then to provide Internet access and then to ensure Year-2000 compliance.

    Since then, however, there's been less technology-driven panic. Businesses and individuals have become more likely to make do with their current generation of computer hardware and software. The result? According to IDC Canada analyst Vito Mabrucco, 60 per cent of Canada's 22 million PCs are at least three years old, with nine million corporate systems installed in 1999 or earlier.

    Mabrucco was speaking at a recent Intel-sponsored Toronto panel discussion, looking at whether companies are getting their money's worth out of their investment in computer technology. (Yes, Intel has a vested interest in getting businesses to buy new computers.) According to Doug Cooper, Intel-Canada's country manager, at most 25 per cent of Canadian businesses now use a three-year turnover for personal computers.

    At my workplace, the bulk of the computers being used were purchased almost five years ago, in the fall of 1998. Pentium-II systems from Richmond's Seanix run Windows 95 on 266-MHz processors, with 64 MB of memory and four GB hard drives. While current mid-priced systems boast processor speeds, memory and hard drive capacities eight to 10 times higher, these older systems continue to be more than adequate for the word processing, e-mail and Web browsing that accounts for most of their use.

    Still, problems are arising.

    Microsoft no longer supports Windows 95. As a result, there are no new security updates for the operating system. Though we upgraded the Web browsers to Internet Explorer 5.5, Microsoft has recently stopped providing security upgrades for that browser version. Its replacement, IE 6.0, won't install on systems running Windows 95. (Windows 98 was due for the same cut-off this summer, though Microsoft recently granted it a temporary reprieve.) Similarly, some other software that we might want to use either needs more drive space, memory or CPU power than we can throw at it, or refuses to run under Win95. (The new update to Microsoft Office expected later this year will only install onto systems running Windows 2000 or XP.) Even if new software installs, it often will run poorly on older systems.

    And now that the three-year extended warranty period is over, the mechanical parts on some of these computers are starting to fail. We've had to replace power supplies, hard drives and keyboards.

    Where businesses are replacing aging desktop computers, often they are buying notebooks. Sales of portable computers have been one of the bright areas in what has been otherwise a stagnant market for personal computers. But notebooks require replacement more frequently. Moving them around increases the likelihood that something will break. Cooper noted that Intel's policy is to refresh its desktop PCs over a three-year cycle while replacing notebooks every two years. Cooper added that companies that delay replacing aging computers are now forced to increase spending for maintenance and support.

    The panelists were hopeful that the expense of supporting an aging computer infrastructure will spur a new wave of business purchases. IDC Canada is predicting that the next year will see a 2.5-per-cent to 3.5-per-cent growth in Canadian computer sales, resulting in, according to Mabrucco, a $5.4-billion market.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan