As wireless networks proliferate, will traditional desktop workstations be relegated to the same fate as the daisy wheel printer?
I've been on the road lately doing a bit of consulting, and I've noticed a trend: More and more of my clients have moved partially or entirely to laptops for their developers. This is in direct contrast to what I saw just a couple of years back, when companies seemed to be moving toward more powerful desktops, especially with multiple monitors. Note that these are the same types of shops--typically leading edge (but not bleeding edge) development environments using either WebSphere Development Studio Client for the i (WDSC) or Rational Developer for the i (RDi) and Rational Developer for the i for SOA Construction (RDi SOA). So it's not the development tasks that are driving them. I wondered what was causing this trend, if indeed it was a trend. And I found a possible answer in the air....
Wireless in the Workplace
I'm a semi-wireless kinda guy. I absolutely use wireless when I'm on the road. Most hotels these days have wireless, usually either free or for a tiny fee, and I use it to connect to my home computer to check email and even do work at home. And I also use wireless at home; my home office is upstairs, but my wife has a computer downstairs, my daughter connects with her laptop when she's home from college, and I can wander around the house with my laptop or my Asus EEE as needed (the Asus is a great TV Guide).
On the other hand, I usually don't use wireless hotspots. Once in a while at the airport, but that's about it. I tethered my laptop to my cell phone for a brief period (it actually helped us catch our flight when we were lost in Los Angeles), but I just don't drive much when I travel, so I don't need it. In fact, the primary use for tethering is GPS, and you can find alternatives for that particular purpose; in fact, most car rental companies now will rent you a GPS device for a nominal fee (about $10 a day).
I tell you this to give you an idea of where I stand in the wireless spectrum. I'm not a WiFi fanboy with iPhone, Bluetooth, GPS, and BlackBerry surgically attached via a waterproof silicon pouch. Nor am I on the other end of the spectrum with a 1964 Bell rotary phone and a 300 baud modem. I'm pretty firmly in the middle, maybe just a tick or two toward the fanboy side, with my own 802.11G network at home that I built with my own little hands with things I bought from Fry's Electronics. OK, three ticks...
Given that perspective, I find the move to laptops rather interesting.
The Competing Pressures
Two completely different sets of influences are pressuring this particular decision. From the cost side, you have the fact that desktops cost much less than comparable laptops. It's usually easier to configure them and to expand them as needed, especially when it comes to adding additional disk storage. In these days of USB-attached devices, the number of slots is less of an issue, but drive bays are always at a premium. The only real advantage of a laptop is its portability, so it seems that in the workplace the desktop would always have an advantage. Not only that, but desktops have a wider range of choices, including higher performance drives, better system bus and memory options, and even more capabilities for performance tweaking.
This advantage of price/performance becomes even more pronounced when you move to the next generation of development tools, such as the Rational tooling or Microsoft Visual Studio or even the less-sophisticated open-source tools. As tools include more graphics capabilities and better integration with Web applications, the amount of computing horsepower required increases correspondingly. I know this firsthand; my old laptop was underpowered for WDSC work, and it was difficult to do demonstrations, much less lead classes with it.
The New Reality
So why the increased use of laptops in the workplace? Well, one reason might be that the cost differential is dropping. The commoditization of PC hardware is finally starting to affect laptop prices, and even machines with high-end screens and relatively fast disk drives are dropping to the point where you can't just dismiss them out of hand. So many things factor into pricing that it becomes very difficult to create a realistic comparison, but if you narrow the focus, you can come up with a general idea. Given the topic of this discussion and my particular bias toward (and recommendation of) the Rational tools, I'll use what I consider to be the prime configuration for a workstation:
· Dual-core CPU, at least 2GHz
· 2GB of RAM
· 80GB drive, minimum of 7200RPM (10K preferred)
· Windows XP
· 1680x1050 video resolution (usually identified as WSXGA+)
That's a pretty good setup. I'd prefer 3GB of DDR2 memory, a CPU at (or overclocked to) 3GHz, and 1900x1200 resolution, but the list above constitutes an adequate configuration while remaining at a reasonable price.
So let's take a look at costs. You can do this two ways: using either a retail vendor or a customization shop. I'll start with Dell. I'm not doing a whole lot of in-depth feature shopping, just a quick scan on the base prices, so you might find a better fit. But here is a first glance: an OptiPlex 755 Mini Tower with the basic setup above is currently $888. You can add some options, like a 2.4GHz processor for $31, a 10K drive for $67, an extra GB of RAM for $64. All in all, that's a decent machine for $1050. The primary downside with this particular model is that a Dell monitor is part of the package, and not only that, I don't think there's an option for a 1900x1200 screen.
Going to the laptop version, the closest I found was a Dell Precision M4300, which when decked out with an 80GB drive, a WSXGA+ screen, and 2GB of memory came to $1358, or nearly $500 more than the similarly packaged desktop. Bump it up to a faster CPU and 4GB of RAM (laptops don't always have a 3GB option), and you're talking $1448, which is only $400 more than the desktop, although note that this won't include a 10K drive; laptops just don't have them.
The other option is to have a custom-built system. I have a custom-built desktop (actually, a portable case about the size of three reams of paper stacked on top of each other) with a big 10K drive, a dual-core CPU overclocked to 3GHz, and 3GB of DDR2 RAM that I bought at the beginning of the year for $700. I won't tell you the name, because it seems they're not the most above-board company in the world, but I got lucky, which is one of the primary issues with customized PCs. On the other hand, I just bought a replacement for my laptop. I purchased a customized laptop with 4GB of RAM, a 2.4GHz processor, and a 160GB drive for $1250 from Xotic PC, and I was thrilled with the company and the service. And they get a perfect 10 rating from resellerratings.com. The same configuration on the Dell brings the price to $1543. Note by the way that the Dell prices include "instant savings," which in the case of the laptops is a hefty $250. I'm not sure how long those savings are in effect or if they even will be when you read this, but then again, this is more for comparison purposes than anything.
As you can see, the price point is not as great as it used to be when desktop replacements typically cost $2000 or more. The difference is still not zero, and as I've noted, some options don't exist, particularly in the disk storage area. In the price range we're talking, you can't get 10K drives or their equivalent, nor can you get a RAID setup. The lack of RAID for latops is why I didn't talk about RAID and whether or not it's a good idea for the desktop. If you need RAID on your workstation, you don't have a real choice; desktop is pretty much the only way to go. You can get a RAID laptop, but even a smallish machine will cost you nearly $3000.
For some, other downsides exist. For example, while the keyboards on laptops have gotten much better over the years, the pointing devices are notoriously unfriendly. The touchpad is often a poor substitute for a mouse, especially for those of us who have become accustomed to their pointing device of choice. Even the trackpoint on the IBM keyboards (fondly known as the "eraser") requires a certain amount of conscious relearning. However, a nice option is a USB mouse, which you can pick up these days for $10-$15. Most laptops support them, and in my opinion, they make all the difference in using a laptop as a desktop replacement.
And then there's the issue of screen real estate. While laptops have recently gone into the 20-inch range (the so-called "entertainment laptop"), at a minimum of $2000 for a refurbished unit, I don't really consider them to be part of this discussion. A machine that weighs 16 pounds and is nearly the size of my 24-inch monitor isn't exactly portable, anyway. Realistically, you have a choice between a 14.1-inch and a 15.4-inch form factor. A 14.1-inch display typically supports up to 1400x1050, while a good 15.4-inch monitor will get to the 1680x1050 WSXGA+ resolution that I consider to be the minimum required for development using GUI tools. For a bump in price (usually around $90), you can even get up to 1900x1200 on a 15.4-inch monitor, but you must have younger eyes than mine to use it successfully.
In no case can you get the resolution and readability of my 24-inch HP display. In my opinion, you can't even get a keyboard that has the same responsiveness as my little black IBM keyboard. At the same time, laptops usually sport an external port for a monitor, so you can hook them up to an external monitor, often at a higher frequency than the onboard LCD panel. Some have external ports for mice and keyboards, albeit sometimes only a USB port, but you can upgrade your peripherals. Plugging and unplugging these devices every time you want to move the laptop significantly reduces the mobility factor and also puts stress on the ports themselves. That's why laptops, especially those sold as desktop replacements, often have an option for a "docking station" that you plug the laptop into and that provides external connections for monitor, keyboard, and mouse, effectively turning the laptop into a desktop. This technique makes for a nice hybrid: all the comforts of a desktop at your desk, but all the mobility of a laptop. This is a relatively expensive option, of course, since you must purchase the external hardware pieces along with the docking station itself (for example, the Dell version is called a port replicator and runs just over $100).
The Wireless Workstation
Despite their shortcomings, I still see more and more laptops. Part of this may be because more people are working from home. While a person can work at home with a desktop, that involves opening up the network and letting your employees in over the Internet and connecting via something like Remote Desktop. You can mitigate the danger through software, but the most secure method is a VPN device, and that will cost you $300 or so. On the other hand, letting someone take their laptop home and then bring it back into the office and hook it up to the network is just as dangerous, if not more so. Think about it: if those folks use their laptops at home for any unsafe activities, they could turn their machines into Trojan horses, potentially bringing deadly Internet pathogens right past your carefully crafted defenses.
But even if the primary benefit is not working from home, portability could still be a plus. If your development practices include regular meetings, especially design and development meetings or hands-on training sessions, then laptops become an important tool, especially in the wireless office. Wireless connectivity reduces the cost of your networking infrastructure because it allows any devices to be connected without having to physically run cable. And while the transfer rates of wireless don't currently come near the GB-plus capabilities of wired connections, those rates continue to increase, and already they're often perfectly adequate for the requirements of workstations, even for developers.
But in conjunction with mobile computing devices, wireless provides the added benefit of turning any space in your business into a potential development environment. No wires needed; just a power strip and a wall to run a projector, and suddenly a non-wired meeting room is a demonstration center. A lunchroom becomes a training room. You can potentially even schedule outdoor development sessions, although given the recent weather in some parts of the country, I'd probably hold off on that particular option.
But the point is still valid. Laptops can turn anyplace that your wireless reaches into a potential development zone. With the advent of wireless printing devices, you can even print and share documents during those sessions. This means less contention for critical wired spaces. Yes, having a wired connection is still a benefit, especially for high-bandwidth projects, including graphic printing and multi-media presentations. Wireless is a powerful tool, but it doesn't reach wired speeds. Even as wireless breaks the 100MB barrier, wired Ethernet enters the 10GB realm. So no, wireless won't replace wired connection entirely anytime soon.
However, it's clear that for many situations that were originally the sole domain of the desktop workstation, laptops provide mobility benefits that may make them the device of choice.
So Have We Seen the End of the Desktop?
Laptops have a lot of benefits. They've gotten smaller, and now, and with some judicious shopping, they're at least a reasonable alternative to the desktop (although it really is hard to beat my $700 "little behemoth"). With a decent mouse and WSXGA+ resolution, the mid-level business laptops can hold their own as replacements for traditional workstations. They can realistically be used for RDi SOA development, and that's pretty much the acid test as far as I'm concerned. They're not as fast, not as cheap, and not as flexible as desktop machines, but they are adequate in many situations.
So, is the trend toward laptops a good thing or a bad thing? I think the jury is still out; the convenience of being mobile can prove very useful, but I don't know that it's always worth the price and the unavoidable loss of power. As with most IT issues, it's a business decision. But even if you prefer desktops and are in a situation in which your primary workstation is or will soon be a laptop, you can console yourself with this: at least it's not your iPhone.