It seems that Web 2.0 has entered the business main stream now that established business dailies—such as the Australian Financial Review which had an article on wikis (light weight, online, blackboards) the other day—are publishing on the topic. For a phrase coined by O’Reilly Media only in 2004, referring to a perceived second-generation of Web-based services that emphasize online collaboration and sharing among users, Web 2.0 seems to have already established itself as a force to be reckoned with.

One of the dramatic changes Web 2.0 brings with it is a shift from desktop applications to shared spaces—collaboration delivered as a service over the internet. This is a dramatic break with the desktop centric world we’re all used to. Rather than installing an application and then typing in obscure strings of characters to contact other users, with a few mouse clicks on a web page we’ve created a new shared space (wiki, project room, blog, …) and invited friends and colleagues. We might be starting a new project with an online project management tool, bringing a virtual team together across time zones, countries and even organisations to design a new product. Or perhaps the space will be only used for a couple of hours to resolve an organisational issue. Web 2.0 has obvious attractions in the enterprise, as the capabilities it provides go directly to some of the root causes for some of the most vexing problems we’re faced with collaborating across time and space, or even across the room.

So, does the desktop matter anymore? If our work moves online, then what happens to the applications installed on the laptop that I have balanced on my knee? A lot of the old productivity applications are being embedded in Web 2.0 web sites. Word processing documents, video, audio, spreadsheets and even presentations are being moved off the desktop and onto a service that lives out in the cloud that is the internet. We’re even seeing the emergence of what are being called WebOSs, which promise to provide something like the current desktop experience complete with productivity application but all delivered via a web browser.

The desktop—the PC or laptop that we all deal with day-to-day—is becoming a personal appliance, much like a mobile phone. And like a mobile phone, the person using it wants to select the one that works for them, customise it to their liking, and they’re even happy to bring their own from home. Its role in life is to connect you to the information and people who live out in the cloud that is the Internet. As applications are increasingly delivered online as a service our organisations become less reliant on our employees having a desktop with a specific installed application suite.

This raises the interesting question: why are we spending a lot of time and money buying PCs and laptops, locking them down to prevent bad things from happening, and then handing them over to our users with a responsibility to support them when many of these same users are happy to bring their own along. Do we need to do more than ensure that our employees have internet connectivity, and consequently can access the collaboration and applications services we deliver over the internet? By create a new desktop pact with our employees; we might be able to pass much of the effort, if not the cost, of maintaining a fleet of desktops onto our users, freeing up valuable resources to be redeployed onto other more profitable initiatives.

Such an extreme statement can be a fruitful starting point to develop a new desktop strategy, even though we know from experience that the final solution will be somewhere in the middle ground between the extreme and where we are today. The reality of the world we live in dictates that we will continue to manage desktops for a while as some users require access to data or applications that cannot be migrated to this new world, either for security or technological reasons, or perhaps because they just don’t want to manage their own desktop. However, even shifting a significant minority to an unmanaged and self provisioned model could realise significant cost savings. It could also provide a great deal of mobility by breaking the connection between a specific device and the corporate information an employee needs. As long as they can access corporate systems via the web, they can work from the office, at home, or even on the road with a laptop and 3G card.

I suppose “Does the desktop matter anymore?” isn’t the right question to ask. It obviously still does, and will for a while. Change is coming though, and we can see the shift from devices and applications to spaces in the not too distant future. The shift is palpable, and we’ve started on the journey with some organisations only too see them realize real savings while, at the same time, creating a more satisfying IT environment for their employees. The question should really be, “When do I start the journey?”