The end of the work PC

For the longest time, ‘one desktop PC for each office worker’ was pretty well the axiomatic IT equipment provision within most organisations.

As a deployment strategy it was easy to plan, cost and support – particularly when the desktop footprint of hardware and software could be standardised and replicated – so it is no surprise that it became the preferred way of working for accountants and IT support staff alike. And it is little wonder that not a few funders still reflex in these terms when they consider how to provide IT resources to third sector organisations they support.

In recent times, however, this model has come under increasing challenge from both new technologies and social trends, to the extent that it is not too early to predict that the classic era of the ‘work PC’ is over.

Whilst this is no doubt the stuff of nightmares for both finance and IT departments, it is vital for all organisations to come quickly to grips with the new realities and enact policies within their larger IT strategies to deal with them.

Laptops eclipse desktop PCs

The first challenge to the standard work PC model arose from the rapid rise in the use of portable computers in the last decade.

For a long time the exclusive domain of senior managers or hardened road warriors, laptops have become the first choice for office workers right across most organisations as people move to more flexible working arrangements.

A few years ago, laptops and their diminutive ‘netbook’ cousins surpassed desktop PCs in total sales for the first time, and portables now account for almost three-quarters of all personal computers sold.

This is due in no small part to the fact that, whilst portable computing used to mean a compromise in performance, dramatic improvements in technology mean that even super-thin and light ultra-portables (which eschew optical and hard drives in favour of flash-based storage) are capable of the most demanding of office applications.

Bring your own PC

But if accountants and IT managers have worried about the risks portability brought to their asset registers, it was nothing like the sheer panic that has been induced by the next major trend sweeping organisations.

In more and more workplaces, it has become commonplace for employees to bring in or choose their own computer, and there is no other way to describe this than as an end run around the policies and controls of both finance and computer support departments. Standardisation is giving way to variety – with Mac OS or Linux joining networks alongside Windows – and people are being freed to choose the software and other tools they feel to get their jobs done.

This trend has been largely ushered in by both the widespread adoption of the internet and cloud-based applications for business use – which are agnostic about the end user’s computer platform – as well as the consumerisation of technology which has seen computers oriented for personal use, particularly those with a luminescent Apple logo, become both more attractive and powerful than purpose-built business machines.

It sounds like a recipe for utter chaos, but the irony is that study after study shows that this eclectic approach not only leads to a considerably more productive workforce, but also to much lower support costs, and so there will be no slackening in this trend anytime soon. Indeed, organisations struggling to recruit good staff may be interested in knowing that almost half the respondents in a recent survey said they would prefer lower pay and their own choice of computer to a higher salary with less flexibility.

Organisations going the ‘bring your own computer’ route will of course need to grapple with both the financial implications of providing equipment allowances as well as the technological and security complexities of opening up their networks to a more multicultural computing environment. But for those that adopt the right tools – embracing cloud computing, or using a virtualisation technology like Citrix to deliver a standard desktop regardless of the client computer – the rewards are there to be gleaned.

The post-PC era

No sooner has the trend to bring your own computer taken hold, though, than it is being eclipsed by the even more far-reaching ‘bring your own device’.

We are moving rapidly into the post-PC era when most of our computing is not done on a desktop or laptop computer, and whether it is as a supplementary computing device or (as is increasingly the case) as their principal business tool, many people are now bringing their personal iPads or other mobile devices to work and demanding network access or email accounts to be configured and kept in sync.

So yet again established policies and IT staff are coming under pressure to be flexible to accommodate these requests, and in most cases they are struggling to catch up.

There are important considerations on both sides of the equation: business data security of course needs to be weighed up, but so do the implications of the post-PC era for employee privacy and the potential downside of permanent electronic tethering to the workplace. But with nearly 90% of us admitting to using our personal devices for work use already, it behooves every organisation to work through these questions and develop an effective strategy to deal with them.