Thursday, January 17, 2013

Demise of the desktop?

It’s sometimes easy to forget how recent the introduction of desktop computers to the workplace is, but you only have to go back one generation to recall life before they existed. A fixed line telephone was the primary method of communication, filing cabinets stored our documents and letters were typed up for delivery by post the next day, if you were lucky. Faxes briefly became common place but quickly lost out to email.

In the desktop computer, we appear to have everything we need to carry out business. So much so that the desktop computer is now a standard feature in all businesses, but will the next generation look back on the desktop computer in the same way we do the typewriter? If so, what will the desktop computer be replaced by and what will drive that change?

To answer these questions we can look at a number of trends already taking place. First and foremost is the prevalence of portable devices such as tablets and smartphones. These provide us with the same computing power found on a standard desktop computer. There’s no question that the trend for more power on smaller devices is set to continue.

Microsoft have recognised this with Windows 8, an operating system designed as much to be run on mobile devices as it is a traditional desktop computer. Many are hailing this change as an indication that we have already entered the ‘Post PC’ age.

In competition with Microsoft are Google and Apple, each with their own systems designed to provide users with a plethora of ‘apps’ to get their work done on the move. These ‘apps’ are increasingly sophisticated. Video conferencing, real-time messaging, instant translation, voice recognition and responsive hardware make using a smartphone ever more functional for performing work tasks away from the desk.

Another trend is for these devices to be continually connected to the internet. Wifi hotspots and 4G connectivity ensure near continuous connectivity for user. The idea of having to wait until you have access to a desktop computer to access the internet already feels dated. Being connected to the internet is a key requirement of the modern desktop computer, so by having that connectivity on portable devices, its relevance diminishes in the same way that the need for a desk phone is diminishing with the mobile.

Perhaps the most significant indication that the desktop computer will become less relevant is the ability to store documents in the ‘cloud’ using services provided by the likes of Microsoft Live Drive, Google Drive and Apple iCloud. Storing data in this way, combined with internet connectivity means that working on your documents can happen from any device from any location. The need for an onsite hard drive, or even workplace file servers is therefore less relevant too.

These changes don’t just to make it possible to work from multiple devices and locations, but really do have the potential to render the desktop computer redundant. Already, companies are grappling with governance and security policies for staff who would prefer to work on their own device instead of their work computer. Some businesses are even pursuing a ‘bring your own device’ policy and replacing installed desktop applications with cloud based apps.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the desk as a work space, or indeed the use of peripheral equipment. A decent sized screen, QWERTY keyboard and comfortable mouse is still conducive to a productivity, even if the bulky computer and hard drive that sits behind them isn’t needed.

There’s other challenges associated with this change too. Currently, access to your work documents will require you to visit your place of work, log in to a desktop computer and access data through a local or network drive. Those steps provide a useful series of security barriers that help to protect your data. Moving documents to the cloud and making them available for you to work on from any device also increases the potential for unauthorised access. That requires serious consideration and user education.

Another challenge is how to manage the shift to using more collaborative tools. Current convention is for documents to be created and stored on a desktop computer and distributed by email. Cloud services now mean they can be created and shared for online collaboration in real-time. That fundamentally changes the way people work and can bring with it a confusion about what is ‘standard practice’. Which cloud platforms are we to trust? How should they interact? Who owns the data?

In amongst all this change, there are some constants. We need to communicate and to create information for distribution. What’s clear is that technology continually adapts to make this happen quicker and more efficiently. In that march of progress, the desktop computer as we know is sure to be left behind. We may even come to wonder in years to come how it survived as long as it did.