There was a time when the dominance of the desktop PC in the workplace was unrivalled. From the rarefied confines of the server rooms to inhabiting our work stations, the PC was the bulwark of the modern office. That primacy is now under a cloud and there are many people arguing the age of the desktop PC is over. The dire predictions are fuelled by the proliferation of smart devices and the rapid pace of desktop virtualisation. While it is hard to deny their impact it may be a bit too early to write off the PC just yet.
The Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend, facilitated by the needs of an increasingly mobile workforce, and the shift to the cloud has disrupted the way workplaces operate. Late Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in March this year that the "post-PC" era had begun and more recently senior IBM engineer and one of the dozen who had a hand in building the first IBM PC, Mark Dean, said in a blog post that the PC was on its way to joining the vacuum tube, typewriter, vinyl records, CRT and incandescent light bulbs.
Hewlett Packard’s recent bout of self-doubt regarding the fate of its PC business has further reinforced the idea that there is no future in the PC game. That may be true to some extent, but the presence of the PC is still as strong as ever. There are close to a billion and a half PCs in the world right now and Gartner estimates that number to tick over the two billion mark by 2014. The desktop PC also has a few aces up its sleeve. When it comes to processing, desktops still offer a price performance which mobile devices cannot beat and you still can’t run servers on tablets. The adoption of tablets and smartphones may have taken a bite out of PC sales but the desktop still has plenty of grunt when it comes utility and power compared to its more mobile counterparts.
Redefining the PC
In essence the real shift has come in the way we define a PC. The “Personal Computer” moniker is now giving way to “Pervasive Computing” and Thomas Duryea Consulting’s EIS national practice manager Rhys Evans says that smart devices are increasingly starting to augment the desktop PC which will actually increase its life.
“We might see a slowdown in shipments of workstations but we won’t see them becoming less relevant in the standard workplace.”
According to Evans, the key factor to that longevity is functionality and while tablets and smartphones are great for reviewing for documents, writing a proposal or bedding down a key contract on an iPad is still a stretch. No matter how good the software is.
With regards to desktop virtualisation, Evans says his clients are keen to utilise the technology to streamline the experience for users and allow them to access data across a full range of devices – desktops, tablets and smartphones.
“It’s not about killing the desktop PC, we are just augmenting it in a new way.”
One way to look at the current environment is to picture a three device (3D) model where the combination of desktops, tablets and smartphones will work in tandem to help a workforce stay connected to the office and work more flexible hours. The shift to the 3D model will understandably pose questions for IT departments. The most pervasive one is providing robust security without compromising user experience. An unsecured phone or tablet can provide a direct line to sensitive information, but a device wrapped up in rings of passwords and authentication codes is a sure fire way of turning of users off and removing the benefit of the device.
The latest hooplah around Carrier IQ also highlights the headaches of BYOD. The idea of a third party software running around logging every action taken on an employee smartphone is the stuff nightmares are made off for IT departments and this is just one of the many issues that are going to come out of the woodwork.
“With people bringing their own devices into the workplace there are number of questions about the legal aspects of a mobile management policy,” Evans says.
“If a company enables a mobility policy, management will be able to track where the devices are. So the question is does the employer have that right to view the location and track an employee from their personal device and potentially keep his or her personal data encrypted and maintained via corporate policies?”
These are the tricky issues that are only going to get bigger as smart devices make inroads into the office. In the meantime the sturdy desktop will continue to chug along at least for another decade. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be relegated to the history books after that. Smart devices have opened up new consumption options for users but the creation of content is still very much predicated by the use of desktops and despite all the post-PC rhetoric that’s not going to change anytime soon. The desktop PC may not welcome the next decade in its present form but it will evolve to keep pace with the changing times.