COLUMN: First Impressions Of AI PCs Will Be Shaped By The Channel

CRN’s Jennifer Follett says that the vendors that work closely with channel partners to bring the early wave of AI PCs to market will stand to make the biggest gains.

First impressions are important. You never get a second chance to make one, as the saying goes.

Many businesses will soon be forming their first impressions of AI PCs as this new category of devices hits the market in 2024: Do they make employees more productive? Do they provide a competitive advantage? Will they deliver enough business value to justify widespread investment? Or are they just a novelty?

Companies such as HP Inc., Lenovo, Dell Technologies and, of course, Microsoft with its breakthrough Copilot application must make sure they have put all the proper channel pieces in place.

The vendors that work closely with channel partners to bring this early wave of AI PCs to market will stand to make the biggest gains. Co-op funds, demand generation programs, funded positions, strong field engagement and detailed sales and marketing campaigns that hit ahead of product rollouts are just some of the necessary elements for AI PC success in the channel.

Why is it so important to get it right the first time? Conventional wisdom says that the IT market will start to accelerate through the second half of 2024 and into 2025 as it shakes off the belt-tightening that was last year’s hallmark. And make no mistake, the market is hungry for growth and eager to leave behind the days when large-scale tech layoffs were all too common.

How quickly and broadly businesses adopt AI PCs will be a keenly watched trend since a PC refresh cycle is a hotly anticipated element of that expected upswing. The pace of AI PC acceptance will be mightily influenced by the first impression the nascent technology makes on early adopters.

The health of the PC market isn’t the only thing at stake. A lackluster adoption rate of AI PCs stands to stymie growth in the software space as well since customers will be reluctant to bring in next-generation, AI-enhanced applications if their users don’t have systems with enough juice to run them.

AI PC sales, particularly in the early days, will be complex consultative engagements, a heavy lift that will require the skill sets endemic to the channel—namely the ability to uncover customers’ true needs and illustrate how the technology will help deliver business outcomes that will bring them success.

These PC refresh decisions are on the horizon. Businesses are moving to roll out the more resource-intensive Windows 11 in anticipation of Microsoft’s planned sunsetting of Windows 10 in October 2025. At the same time, systems purchased during the pandemic are approaching the end of their typical life cycle. Amid these factors, customers are turning to solution providers to help them decide whether now is the right time to invest in these shiny new AI PCs.

I recently spoke with Mike Crosby, executive director at research firm Circana, about the challenges customers face as they now consider AI PC adoption.

For one thing, the systems will come at a premium price, as much as 20 percent to 30 percent higher than regular PCs in Circana’s estimation. Customers are seeking guidance from solution providers on which of their employees to outfit with AI PCs and what use cases the devices should be put toward to deliver the best ROI, he said.

For another, they are worried about potential compatibility issues with their current IT environment, particularly if they move quickly to bring in AI PCs before they have a chance to truly vet the impact.

And third, they are concerned that they don’t have—and can’t acquire—the talent required to support and optimize AI.

“You’ve got CFOs and CTOs leaning on the channel to provide recommendations and guidance because they’re struggling with it,” Crosby said. “‘Is it going to ultimately compromise the performance of my business today [if I bring them in too early], or if I go the conservative route and my competition goes forward with it, am I now going to be disadvantaged for some period of time?’ ... So this is where they’re really leaning on the channel heavily and looking for those recommendations, guidance and understanding because, I think, it’s just so new.”

In addition, solution providers can offer technical acumen via managed services, training and education to bridge the AI talent gaps customers face, he said.

At the end of the day, it is AI solutions that will fuel the AI PC revolution. That can only come from partners working hand in hand with customers on specialized applications for specific industries and workflows. The channel—as it always does with any new technology—will find innovative ways to make customers more productive. It is with strong programs and engagement from channel-savvy vendors that they will get the market off to a strong start and make the best possible first impression.