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User-centric working – the PC is dead and personal computing thrives

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I wrote this post in anticipation of the 30th birthday of the PC in August with the accompaniment of various articles and posts about this pretty momentous occasion. Momentous because the ‘personal’ element was the beginning of a really genuine shift in the way we work, leading to the ‘consumerization of IT’ as we term much of today’s changes. That is a path that has led us from expensive hardware limiting its use to enterprises, large expensive projects, extremely structured processes, and proprietary licensed software to, well what?

Little did I know that a day after I had written it the news would be full of HP announcing that they were spinning off their PC business as it was no longer a key technology in their hardware manufacturing business. I hurriedly wrote a new post for last week questioning whether ‘the wheels had come off the PC business’  and dwelling on HP’s shift in positioning and strategy. Frankly, the rest of this piece comes up pretty well aligned to these changes last week so from here on it’s the original piece starting with the answer to the question as to what and where the path from the PC is or has led us...

The answer is a relatively large range of low cost technology devices that increasingly all interact through a wireless connection with the Internet to reach a range of content and services that redefines personalization, and indeed the phrase ‘service’ itself. Though it’s not part of this blog, consider for a moment the ubiquitous GPS in cars; the latest TomTom units are remarkable not just for what they can do in terms of real-time information on anything from traffic to parking, but for what they cost, and the opportunity they give businesses and users to ‘do business together’ in new ways around location, timing and events. The owner/user receives a new level of capabilities and personalization that changes their view of ‘travel’.

It’s the same with the user’s view of work; as I have said in previous posts, work is an activity today and a place. We work in real-time interactions with people, events and locations, and just like the GPS we have increasingly powerful tools on hand to do so. So what and how has the executive power user redefined ‘personal computing’ already and how will a steadily increasing number of power users expect to be supported over the coming years?

It’s not just a simple adoption of tablets, nor even a battle between smartphones, tablets and PCs (and it’s certainly not only about access to enterprise IT applications either). Today’s power users will have all three devices, with personal ownership mixed with enterprise ownership, and are increasingly likely to have more than one of each as well, i.e. a home PC as well as a work PC. I have a lot of colleagues who fit this definition today and use all of their devices at different times and want effective synchronization in relative real-time between all of them. The term user-centric computing is coming into use to define the resulting environment.

When I travel a smartphone will be conveniently hooked to my belt allowing me to do simple things in a timely way e.g. keep an eye on messages and email, see a map and travel itinerary, etc. In the office during the working day I need more, in particular I need to refer to documents in meetings, make notes, look up information, find optional answers to events as circumstances occur and, of course, the tablet with its form factor, capability and long wireless life is ideal. Back at my desk for some parts of the day then it’s the PC for the heavy duty personal creative work, such as writing this blog, or checking the spreadsheet on the budget and amending, but most of all this is where enterprise applications are used as these represent the structured part of the working day.

At home it may be back to the PC for some evening or weekend catching up on core activities but whereas the desktop or notebook enterprise PC is likely to be Windows, the chances are that power users are on Apple for their personal machines, or even a Linux variant. Maybe that doesn’t matter too much if the only enterprise service is email and a calendar, and the same goes for their personal tablet and smartphone, or does it? Actually it does because the pattern of work is changing and the power users are heavy users of Web 1.0-based content, Web 2.0-based people-to-people social tools and now cloud-based process services, as much or more than enterprise applications. I have a printed copy of a study from three years ago that shows that for nine common business roles only 7% of their work on average is on transactional enterprise applications. Put another way, a huge part of a power user’s personal value is around real-time decision making, events, collaboration, etc. to solve problems and optimize opportunities and most, if not all, of that is going to happen off the enterprise desktop PC.

More importantly that key point about device/work synchronization is going to happen around the user and their devices externally using browser cloud technology, and not internally around the data model of enterprise applications using client-server technology. An Apple user achieves the synchronization today seamlessly and automatically with Apple iCloud, (could this be why Apple doesn’t seem concerned about enterprise sales as their technology is user-centric and not enterprise-centric? Then there was the newly launched HP webOS that aimed to provide the same common experience for HP PCs, tablets and smartphones, or what about the Google model using Android and Chrome to power a huge range of devices, or soon the Microsoft option of Windows 8?

All the companies have user-centric retail operations and are pushing to make their products as attractive as possible to the user as the potential buyer, and adding features to support their way of using the products, though Microsoft and HP have a clear corporate side to their offerings too. Against this background could you make an enterprise choice and manage clearly through it? You could but it looks unlikely that you could make it stick for more than one or two of the devices a user has, and even then you can’t mandate how they are used in the same ways as internal desktops. It’s time to do some serious planning about shifting from a desktop strategy and refresh cycle, to a user’s strategy and policy approach. With the Apple iPad outselling all other tablets combined by a factor of eight to one and HP unable to make any impact on this market it seems that the users have already chosen their devices, and it wasn’t with any corporate management capabilities in mind!

Oh and the headline? No doubt you saw the many reports on the interview with Dr Mark Dean, one of the original creators of the first fully functional PC, the IBM 5150, in which he described the PC’s days as being numbered. Actually, if you read the whole of his blog and not just the instant headlines then the important comment is as follows, and for me it offers a strong definition of ‘user-centric’ computing:

PCs are being replaced at the center of computing not by another type of device – though there’s plenty of excitement about smartphones and tablets – but by new ideas about the role that computing can play in progress. These days, it’s becoming clear that innovation flourishes best not on devices but in the spaces between them, where people and ideas meet, and interact.

About the author

Andy Mulholland
Andy Mulholland
Capgemini Global Chief Technology Officer until his retirement in 2012, Andy was a member of the Capgemini Group management board and advised on all aspects of technology-driven market changes, together with being a member of the Policy Board for the British Computer Society. Andy is the author of many white papers, and the co-author three books that have charted the current changes in technology and its use by business starting in 2006 with ‘Mashup Corporations’ detailing how enterprises could make use of Web 2.0 to develop new go to market propositions. This was followed in May 2008 by Mesh Collaboration focussing on the impact of Web 2.0 on the enterprise front office and its working techniques, then in 2010 “Enterprise Cloud Computing: A Strategy Guide for Business and Technology leaders” co-authored with well-known academic Peter Fingar and one of the leading authorities on business process, John Pyke. The book describes the wider business implications of Cloud Computing with the promise of on-demand business innovation. It looks at how businesses trade differently on the web using mash-ups but also the challenges in managing more frequent change through social tools, and what happens when cloud comes into play in fully fledged operations. Andy was voted one of the top 25 most influential CTOs in the world in 2009 by InfoWorld and is grateful to readers of Computing Weekly who voted the Capgemini CTOblog the best Blog for Business Managers and CIOs each year for the last three years.

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