Keeping the end up
When Apple announced its latest iPhone range in September, few were expecting it to be a huge success. After all, rival Samsung had just warned that sales of its top-of-the-line Galaxy S10 phones had been lacklustre, and really exciting new features in premium smartphones – the kind that drive must-have upgrades – are few and far between.
If innovation is happening in the cloud, who really cares about end-user devices these days?
Actually, it turns out people care, a lot. Not only has the iPhone 11 exceeded sales expectations, the whole market for end-user devices is more buoyant than headlines might lead you to expect.
Spend is happening
“We’re definitely seeing a lot more upgrades taking place,” says Jaco Oosthuizen, mobility category lead at Rectron.
As far as laptops are concerned, he continues, people are still buying the best-value-for-money devices, but then the specs are being upgraded.
People walk into a store and are bombarded with too many models, so they walk out and stick with what they've got. Retailers need to curate their selection better.Dimitri Tserpes, Mustek
“There’s a shift to solid state drives (SSDs), and from i3 devices to i5 and even i7. There’s also a lot of interest in thin and light, good battery life and so on. Customers are well educated too. They’re conducting proper research.”
Microsoft’s senior OEM partner technology manager Bruce Murphy says his firm has recognised the need to drive customer choice. “Over the last two years, we’ve been pushing OEM partners to build to certain specifications around SSDs, processor performance and battery life. It’s taken a while, but we have to lift entry-level processing.”
Entry-level devices, Murphy says, are becoming more powerful and there’s been a concerted effort to get higher-spec hardware into chains such as PEP and Ackermans. The strategy is paying off, and low-income families are now investing in decent hardware.
Glenn du Toit, consumer business head at Acer Africa, adds that the important thing is that entry-level machines are now capable of meeting expectations. Low-end devices that disappoint taint expectations for the future.
“There’s a responsibility to get tech out there,” Du Toit says. “But you can’t do it selling a device that doesn't get the best results, or has high failure rates.”
One particular area of change in the entry-level space is the move from cheap tablet computers to better specced laptops, largely thanks to the inability of many budget machines to perform.
“The whole product line of entry-level tablets grew out of Shenzen around 2010,” says Murphy. “The user experience was shocking because the attitude was, ‘What is the least amount of hardware I can put this on and make it work?’ That was the downfall of the entry-level tablet, and we don't want to create that experience for the PC.”
The demand for better performance at lower prices is true of phones as well as laptops, says IDC research analyst Arnold Ponela. “Sub-$100 mobile phones are selling well; people aren’t moving up to more expensive phones, they’re going down. The challenge now is, are they giving the specs people are looking for because lower LSM groups now have second-hand iPhones? How do you cater for that market hoping that they will trade up?”
While moving into non-traditional retail may be working, however, there was much criticism of mainstream tech stores, which are seen as too confusing.
“There’s a lot of noise,” says Rectron’s Oosthuizen. “The tech is going forward and backwards, there’s big differences in prices and the end-user is the loser as they don’t have time to figure out the best, most secure choice.”
Often, users bring in their own devices and won't follow policy, but IT is too scared to enforce its own rules.Mickey Molfessis, Mimecast
The result, agrees Mustek CTO Dimitri Tserpes, is buyer apathy. “People walk into a store and are bombarded with too many models, so they walk out and stick with what they've got. Retailers need to curate their selection better,” he says.
In the enterprise
Even though most at the table is optimistic about the business market, there’s no getting away from the fact that upgrade cycles have got longer.
“We do see people sweating assets,” says Axiz’ business unit manager for Dell Technologies, Gerry Vletter. “Three-year warranties are turning into five-year warranties.”
This is creating problems, particularly around cyber security, adds Mustek’s Tserpes.
“The press says ‘the PC is dead’,” Tserpes says, “but it's not. You have to first start conversations with businesses that the old clunker they’re using is a risk. It may be under warranty, but that’s not going to make it secure.”
In addition, he says, the falling prices of thin and light laptops are helping to drive interest. “No one will buy a thick notebook again unless it’s for CAD.”
Interest in hardware design is being driven by consumerisation of the market.
“HP says it doesn't want you to buy a device, it wants you to buy an experience,” says Francois van Wijk, HP business unit manager, Drive Control Corporation. “There must be no compromise on the specs.”
There must be no compromise on the specs.Francois van Wijk, Drive Control Corporation
Another factor driving sales, the panel agrees, is that Windows 7 is approaching its end of life, with support due to end on January 14, 2020. In today’s security-savvy age, no one wants to be caught out running an old and potentially vulnerable OS.
So what are they buying?
“It’s all about choice,” says Ian Jansen van Rensberg, senior systems engineer and lead technologist at VMware South Africa. “People want choice to upgrade when they want – some people want to upgrade every six months. But what they really want is access to business-critical apps regardless of the device they’re using. ‘Bring your own device’ (BYOD) is becoming more relevant.”
While BYOD hasn’t gone away, neither have the concerns that it brings.
“One thing I've noted is that people keep forgetting to secure those devices,” says Mimecast’s cyber security expert Mickey Molfessis. “Often, users bring in their own devices and won't follow policy, but IT is too scared to enforce its own rules.”
“Half the problem is that people go to retail to buy the devices,” adds Microsoft’s Murphy. “But they don't have enterprise technology available at retail. What’s sold at retail may not have Trusted Platform Module (TPM) 2 compatibility, for example.”
Internationally, there’s been a rise in the take-up of ‘Device-as-a-Service’ (DaaS), says Acer’s Du Toit, which is helping to address issues around cyber security by keeping hardware up-to-date and the software current. DaaS devices are usually provisioned with software installed and update policies managed.
One big challenge – and disturbing in light of recent news about cyber attacks – is that government remains a major customer in South Africa, but, says IDC’s Ponela: “They aren't updating.”
“Does government appreciate the fact that just as we have ageing infrastructure in power supply, we have an ageing infrastructure in terms of IT?” asks Du Toit, rhetorically.