Retooling the federal desktop
- By Dan Caterinicchia, Dan Caterinicchia
- Aug 21, 2000
The federal government's love affair with the personal computer is cooling.
PC manufacturers and resellers in the federal market are seeing an end to
the era of large-scale computer purchases in which agencies bought and replaced
PCs on a regular basis, lured by steadily falling PC prices and continuing
improvements in technology.
Instead, agencies are taking a more strategic approach to desktop computers,
according to federal market players. Feds are still interested in the latest
technology, but they would rather upgrade their computers as needed — "refreshing"
them with new chips, more memory, larger disk drives — rather than buy whole
And when they make volume purchases, they generally have a particular
project in mind. "Agencies used to think that they could go buy this or
that by thinking about hardware like mechanics think about parts they need,"
said Rebecca West, program manager for the seven-year, $10 billion Information
Technology Omnibus Procurement-II (ITOP-II) contract at the Transportation
"But now, they see an information problem or a data management problem
or a workflow problem and are looking for a solution," West said.
This represents a whole new way of thinking about PCs. Throughout the
1990s, agencies spent billions of dollars on PCs, putting computers on nearly
every desktop, only to replace them with new and faster models several years
The volume of purchases increased during the years, as agencies found
new ways to apply technology to long-standing problems. The PC market drove
a steady increase in government IT spending throughout the decade, through
both governmentwide PC contracts — such as the Air Force Desktop series — and the General Services Administration's federal supply schedule.
The change in buying strategies is not immediately apparent when looking
at raw market data. IT spending continues to rise, as seen in the latest
numbers from GSA. More than a dozen vendors have surpassed $100 million
in GSA business for fiscal 2000, compared with just four companies in 1997.
Still, after years of exponential market growth, vendors say that spending
on new PCs is beginning to flatten, while more money is being earmarked
in other IT areas, including handheld devices, networking, security and
A PC on Every Desktop
No one is surprised by the shift in purchasing, after so many years
of the PC buying frenzy. Now that the Year 2000 transition is complete and
most agencies have a PC on every desk, they have begun to think of desktop
computers as part of a complete IT solution. "There's no mystery in PCs;
they are more and more commodity-like," said Chip Mather, senior vice president
at Acquisition Solutions Inc. and a former procurement official at the Air
Force. "And the machines are lasting longer, which is impacting the [sales]
Recent advances in processing power have also reduced the need for replacing
desktop computers, Mather said. Agencies used to upgrade their PCs because
a new software program would come along and "crunch their systems," but
now the desktops are lasting longer and can be refreshed instead of replaced,
Along the way, feds also have become smarter customers. PC buyers are
planning their purchases to meet specific performance require-ments and
are demanding refresh clauses and other added services when they purchase
"It's a different environment now vs. three or four years ago when we
were outfitting and giving everyone a PC, basically getting as many as we
can," said Tom Leahy, acting chief of the Army's small computer program,
which manages contracts for PCs, portable computers and related products.
"There was no replacement plan, just get one and put it on the desk."
These days, rather than make large-scale purchases, agencies are looking
to refresh their desktop computers about every three or four years, said
Col. Neal Fox, director of the Commercial Information Technology-Product
Area Directorate at the Air Force, which manages half a dozen blanket purchase
agreements for PC-related technology.
The number of government PC customers is "growing almost not at all,"
said Harry Heisler, vice president and general manager at Micron Government
Computer Systems. "It's not that they're not buying computers, but [they're
dealing with] issues of obsolescence and replacements — which is a de facto
upgrade. The government is just modernizing, not adding additional seats."
The Big Picture
The flat market for new PCs is not causing the fear one might expect
from manufacturers such as Compaq Computer Corp., IBM Corp., Gateway Inc.
and Micron. Instead, those vendors have changed their focus to offering
PCs as part of complete solutions that include maintenance, training and
a variety of other services.
Joel Lipkin, senior vice president of sales and customer support at
GTSI Corp., said that because the desktop has become a critical part of
federal employees' everyday job performance, agencies want t0 maximize the
machines' output. Consequently, the government is spending more on infrastructure
at the enterprise level, and less in the pure PC space.
"Government is redirect-ing its IT spending, taking that existing PC
base and making it a more effective piece of the pie," Lipkin said.
ITOP-II, one of the few remaining large government-wide contracts, reflects
that strategy. Although primarily a services contract, ITOP-II includes
hardware and software, but those purchases must be critical and related
to the services to be performed, West said.
The idea of planning IT purchases also has gained favor under the Clinger-Cohen
Act, said Victor Powers, acting program manager for the National Institutes
of Health's Information Technology Acquisition Assessment Center, which
oversees NIH's three major contracts: Chief Information Officer Solutions
and Partners (CIO-SP2i), Electronic Computer Store-II and ImageWorld 2nd.
Clinger-Cohen, passed in 1996, requires agencies to treat IT spending
as an investment, with an emphasis on demonstrating the impact of that investment
on agency operations. The extensive planning required by the act has kept
agencies in the market for PCs, Powers said.
He also noted that there was a significant increase in PC purchases
during fiscal 1999 to facilitate the Year 2000 transition, but he does not
expect a dip in sales on CIO-SP2i, ECS-II or ImageWorld 2nd contracts because
agencies are now planning better and fighting to stay abreast of advancing
So far in this fiscal year, NIH has done internal sales of more than
$22 million on ECS-II, with the two busiest months of the year still ahead.
Last year, internal sales hit $33 million on ECS-II, and Powers expects
this year's numbers will match that.
"We're projecting it will level off, but we've never experienced a dip,"
Powers said. "Through staying abreast of changes in technology and refreshment,"
the PC-buying market should remain strong.
PC providers have had to embrace that shift to remain competitive in
the government market, said Jay Lamb-ke, vice president of government sales
The key to doing desktop business with federal agencies has been repackaging
PCs as part of an overall solution that includes training, Internet access
and other features. "The PC used to be a productivity tool. Now it's just
a small portion of the productivity solution," Lambke said.
Gateway has reported some success with this approach. Last year, the
company aimed to earn 10 percent of its revenue from non-PC-related products
and services, and it achieved 15 percent. PC numbers remained flat while
the sale of training services and peripherals has skyrocketed.
The companywide goal for this year was for 40 percent of revenue to
come from nonsystems buys including peripherals, Internet access and Web
hosting. Gateway surpassed that in the second quarter, Lambke said.
IBM has also seen its government PC sales level off but is not worried
about the federal government getting out of the PC business. "Our desktops
aren't growing as explosively as they were," but other markets, including
laptops and servers, are picking up the slack, said Bill Jones, IBM's manager
for business development.
Ron Ross, president of Compaq Federal LLC, acknowledged that PC buying
is flat, but he has also seen a rise in revenue from other sources. "I don't
see the IT market in the federal space going down. It's just a different
mix of business," with more servers, storage and other applications outpacing
PC buys to help offset the loss of personnel in different areas.
Micron is in the same boat. In fiscal 1999, Micron earned $229 million
in GSA sales and is on track to surpass that this year, but the company
has had to add services such as e-commerce, call centers and training to
stay ahead of the game.
"It's really just evolution," Heisler said. "The size of the market
says it's going to continue to be important and at times brisk for selling
computers, but it requires more planning and more long-term objectives."
Tom Buchsbaum, vice president and general manager for Dell Federal,
said he sees three areas of "dynamic" growth in the federal market: services,
e-government and security.
The demand for services has been stimulated in part by the "war for
talent" that's going on in all types of enterprises. It has caused agencies
to outsource many services that they don't consider to be part of their
core mission, such as software testing and configuration. A large percentage
of the systems Dell delivers to agencies now go out with software configured
and tested according to agency specifications.
E-government and security solutions build on Dell's experience in securing
transactions for their own customers. Many agency officials have approached
the company and asked how they can emulate Dell's success, Buchsbaum said.