Based on CES this year, it looks like the next decade will be defined by appliance-like devices and the cloud services that support them. PCs are off the bubble and smartphones, slates, smartbooks, and eBooks are climbing up to take their place. We appear to be close to where we were in the PC market when Apple launched the Apple II, which means we now have a sense for what the perfect device could be but we don't yet have one to buy. However, the approach of this change is likely already having an impact on new PC deployments as funds that might otherwise be going to new PCs are going to smartphones and are eventually likely to go into these new classes of larger connected devices.
Let's talk about getting ready for this change
Cloud/Services-Based Appliance Eco System
One thing that is clear is that the emerging ecosystem is a connected one. This is almost back to the future, where the intelligence is likely to shift increasingly to the central service for major calculations while remaining local for things like rendering and navigation. In a way, the coming platform looks like a blend between terminals/thin clients and PCs with a more dynamic balance of workloads between the two extremes based on connectivity and task. It does look like the data, for the most part, will reside centrally and that the devices will look more like the rumored Apple iSlate than either a current PC or smartphone. Whether most will have a keyboard or not is yet to be determined, but given that we don't like change very much, I'm guessing the most popular devices will look a lot like laptops initially. There are a series of questions you need to consider.
Who Owns the Device?
When PCs came to market, they were expensive, costing the equivalent of $5,000 or more in today's dollars, fully configured with monitors (and these weren't even color monitors). These appliance devices are expected to cost between $0 and $500 with subsidies and group buying plans, suggesting that companies don't have to buy the devices but that employees still could benefit from negotiated corporate buying plans. This would mean one fewer asset to depreciate and track and more freedom for the employee to find the device that best suited their needs.
What About Standards?
You certainly don't want employees running around with Nintendo gaming tablets at work. It would probably make the wrong impression, and standards on security, connectivity, and support should likely be set ahead of time to minimize support costs. With those who are likely to buy these things early, rather than making them go around IT as they generally do, it might be wiser to make them part of a supported trial to see if you can learn what works, what doesn't, and what you should specify as requirements for this new class of device.
What About Security?
There likely are acceptable applications that can close the security gap but, unlike the biometrics and TPMs we've come to depend on (when we used them), these devices aren't very secure, any more than the iPhone is. This means thinking through the exposures if one is stolen and looking for applications (one of the tasks you can put your trial group on) that close this security gap and work with your security infrastructure. Apparently, big brother is watching and it may not just be law enforcement.
Modeling the Future Office
What will your office look like in the future? Will these replace your PCs, supplement them, take you back to desktop PC configurations or desktop thin clients, replace the desk phone or drive some other major change? PBXs are generally on life support anyway, and why an employee needs two phones paid for by the company is becoming questionable. What else can be adjusted out? Increasingly, you certainly won't need a laptop and a portable device, suggesting that a small, inexpensive desktop might be a better partner device; it could also be an even cheaper network-attached thin client, depending on the need, or a departmental PC for those times when more capability is needed.
Do you need as many printers if people can more easily share what is on their screen? Probably not. And with people out and about, do you even need as much office space as you once had? By modeling out what you are likely to need once this trend matures, you can prevent buying expensive hardware and shift to things you will need. A lot of folks bought mid-range and mainframe computers only to find that they quickly were made obsolete by the PC wave. Your trial will help you prioritize where you should be putting your funds and where you can probably reduce spending.
Change is coming and I think we have entered a three-to-five-year window where employees are going to begin using their PCs less and connected appliance devices more. In fact, if you look at smartphone use, this trend has been going on to some degree for some time. Now we need to anticipate the changes we'll need to make as this next class of device starts to fully displace PCs. The change won't happen overnight but anticipating it properly could result in happier employees and higher satisfaction with IT as well as a firm that is better prepared for what's coming. While it is likely, in fact you can bet on it, that what we think we know right now will change, having a working plan still helps you prioritize desktop technology purchases and will result in your being better prepared when questions about this change come up. Often, an IT organization does best when it looks prepared. Now appears to be the time to make sure that impression is well founded.