Should Employees Buy Their Own PCs?

Rob Enderle

I bought my first PC for work while I was at IBM, and it wasn't an IBM PC. It was a Panasonic Sr. Partner and it was one of the first portable Intel-based computers ever built.


Mine was very rare and sported a flip-up large, laptop like Plasma display. Weighing in at over 35 pounds and having a built-in printer with a purchase price in today's dollars of over $7K, it's hard to imagine it was worth it. But it was, rather than having to borrow someone else's PC, or worse, use a terminal to write massive audit reports. It allowed me to improve my quality and focus more on the work itself than on screwing around with crappy tools.


Things have changed. Good laptops range from $700 to $2K, and the choices are accelerating. Products range from the excellent Lenovo X60 ultra portable laptop with over six hours battery life to the stunning new HP consumer based product with a 20-inch screen. Both have their advantages tied to certain usage models. We know (but often ignore) that employees use these machines for personal things we would rather not think about. And when an employee is let go, we take away the very tool they may most need to find another job, often adding insult to injury. In addition, we struggle with managing images and break-fix problems, we pick generic products that often seem to be marginally unacceptable to everyone, and we struggle with the needs of executives who have the power to go around our standards and force us to support Apple or Sony products (largely because they make personal statements).


Microsoft is planning to pull the plug on XP deployments in January 2008 and, for the new hardware coming to market, Vista is a requirement if you don't want to take a rather huge performance and security hit. But it's been over 10 years since we've deployed a major desktop OS and, even though the process is vastly better this decade, I'll bet none of us are looking forward to it.


I think it is time to step back, realize we aren't in the '80s, and figure a way to vastly simplify our own lives and let the employees, who should be better able to pick their own tools, buy their own PCs.




Recall a time when companies maintained cars for their employees. Companies, with some exceptions, don't do that anymore (the taxes became a nightmare) -- although they do reimburse for mileage and sometimes provide a car allowance for jobs like field sales as a way to ensure that employees whose productivity is tied to their cars isn't compromised by their inability to afford reliable vehicles. The end result of getting rid of these car fleets was a dramatic reduction in the overhead associated with them. From having to buy them in the first place, to maintaining them, to dealing with executive preferences, to getting rid of the darned things at the end of their service lives, the amount of work needed to maintain thousands of cars was not too dissimilar to that required to maintain thousands of PCs.


In the end, employees are now able to buy what they feel they need. They handle the purchase, maintenance and replacement of the vehicles and, strangely enough, both employee and employer appear happier with the result.


The Trigger


What got me thinking about all of this is the broad refresh of product rolling to market on the new Intel and AMD platforms. Dell, HP, Gateway, Lenovo, Toshiba and others are refreshing their lines with laptops that improve dramatically the performance and power efficiency that was available a few short months ago. Apple will announce a similar refresh shortly (likely tied to their June developer event).


In a few weeks the new quad core desktops will start to roll into the market, and for employees doing media creation, graphics or any type of heavy numerical analysis, these systems will be critical as well. While they will likely be able to justify and get approval for early replacements at work, what do they do if they want to work from home on weekends or evenings? What if weather, security or terrorist threat keep them from coming in to work? Many of these folks are willing to buy their own machines today, but getting necessary support from IT is not only nearly impossible, from an IT perspective, it is also impractical. IT simply does not have the human resources to support every possible configuration of PC. The image management alone would be virtually impossible.


So what's the answer?


Virtualization/Emulation May Be the Answer


The idea of being able to create a consistent PC has been the Holy Grail of PC systems management, and the proliferation of images one of the biggest headaches for PC support organizations today. But if you can virtualize a consistent hardware image, or you can emulate it, you can then construct a consistent image to go on top of the virtualization or emulation product and eliminate what has become a never-ending nightmare for some shops. In addition, assuming you can secure the result, you can then provide a container -- say a USB-connected hard drive -- for this consistent image and core product. The result could run on anything that will run the emulator or the virtual machine. This might include all versions of Windows, including Vista, Apple, and maybe even some versions of Linux.


If a PC fails, the employee is up and running again as quickly as a new machine can be provided, and the entire thing can be made redundant for a fraction of the cost of a laptop computer. If we encrypt the drive, not only is it less likely to be stolen (folks typically want the laptop, not the drive), but it is worthless to anyone that doesn't have the key. At some future point, you could even build the encryption technology into the drive itself so it wouldn't impact system performance.


There Is a Product


For the last two years, I've been looking for an answer to this problem and it was clearly coming. I've had a chance to test a number of flash-based products over that time that showed promise but were primarily designed to allow employees to safely use PC pools by emulating their own PC in some limited way on the borrowed machine.


Last week I ran into a product that was incredibly close. It is called the "Mojopac." This software, when applied to a USB drive, allows you to create a single image that will run on any Windows XP machine and provide much of what I think we need to make this all work. A portable 100GB USB drive works fine, the environment is contained and can be password-protected and encrypted, and the end result is an image your employee can use on any machine after loading a very small virtualization application and not rebooting.


The product isn't quite where I would like it to be yet. It doesn't support Vista or the MacOS directly; the encryption solution is software-based (and so robs performance), and the product is still rather young, which means we don't have data yet from any broad deployments.


Still, it is worth a look because it could provide a way for you to do for PCs what we did with cars -- make them the employees' responsibility, and better match the tools to the folks that need to use them.


Of course, it would also likely dramatically reduce your own PC support costs and allow you to move those funds to areas that could likely use them. In the end, however, it is likely the simplification that will be the most attractive feature. We could all use a little less on our plates. This, if it scales, could allow us to pass the overhead associated with PCs back to the employee -- and then they can decide what is best for their own needs.

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May 14, 2007 1:13 AM Jon McAdams Jon McAdams  says:
Employee PC Ownership and Corporate Data SecurityI liked the idea of exploring employee owned PCs, portable images and virtual machines, but I had some questions when I began thinking about security, access and control.1. Does it become more legally difficult to require that an employee not install or run specific types of software (games, peer-to-peer file sharing, VOIP, IM, etc.) on a PC, device or image when its owned by the employee? 2. Do legal issues also become more complex if a few employees try to uninstall, defeat, work around or ignore company installed security measures, software, firewalls, VPN, etc. either installed on (or by using) a PC device or image that is approved for use by the company but owned by an employee?3. If malware, unauthorized data or unauthorized access are suspected involving an employee owned PC, device or image, what legal issues are involved if the company wishes to inspect or seize it for investigation, or when the employee owning it has been terminated?I'm not a lawyer, but I started wondering; could legal uncertainties related to questions such as these cause significant and unplanned legal expenses because of issues involving personal property rights, and the use, access and control of specific IT assets that are yet to be tested in the courts? Would those with legal backgrounds in this area be willing to post comments? Reply
May 14, 2007 8:14 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
1) Im not an attorney but I think the real question is do you have that control now? In most cases IT doesnt and the employee loads whatever they want. If they break the system IT then has a limit on how long they will attempt a fix before re-imaging it. IT is not a line organization and, unless they lock the PC down, has little authority (outside what Ive noted above) to control what goes on the PC. However, if it is the employees own box and IT simply provides an encapsulated image, there is little motivation for the employee to mess with that, and if they do, they simply download another version of this same image and they are up and running. Has to be much less expensive.2) Same answer, this has more to do with authority. Now in Germany or in Banking where IT has a lot of authority employee ownership might make things worse, but right now employees turn stuff off (we know they turn off backup, block patches, and dont allow AV software to update). But with a contained image we could disable the image until the updates are done, in fact we could update them in the cloud and push down a new updated image before we allowed them on the network (you can actually do that now, but with a contained image the process would be vastly easier because youd have only one virtual hardware configuration to manage if you used my virtual machine suggestion). 3) With an encapsulated image you simply purge the image next time they try to connect. If an employee knows they are leaving they are likely to pull the stuff they want before they announce their departure anyway and, if they are fired you simply lock them out of company resources and trigger a remote purge (or time out their password access to the contained image, which should be encrypted and protected anyway). In most cases the employee will be in the office and it likely is less confrontational to remotely disable the password into the protected partition then it is to take away their hardware anyway. Even if remote, getting a fired employees hardware back typically means holding up their last paycheck. In this case, they could simply log it, they wouldnt have to face the embarrassment of having to come back into work and you could mail them their personal belongings (could help prevent violence as well). The key here is to contain he IT component in a partition that would then be effectively password protected, encrypted, and managed. You could even lock it down so that the employee couldnt mess with it but could install anything they wanted outside of that partition. Reply
May 15, 2007 10:05 AM Jon McAdams Jon McAdams  says:
The points raised in the article are useful and thought provoking. I feel the article and the follow-up makes a good case for employee owned laptops because they are being used by those who need to work off-site, often away from company locations with easy IT support. Re-installing an encapsulated image, verifying updates, patches, and anti-virus definitions on that image before granting company network access, and having laptop drives encrypted would provide added security to whats unfortunately a more common lack of such security today. It's also much more likely that employees would try to maintain physical control of their laptops when off-site if those laptops were owned by them and not by the company. However, if employees are free to purchase many different models and brands of laptops the question of how to most cost effectively pay for the repair and replacement of many types of laptops with different hardware (drives, keyboards, etc.) may turn out to be a key issue.However when it comes to on-site desktops, I'm not so sure Im convinced that employee ownership would improve the existing situation. I feel it could be more cost effective to clearly define what can be done with, and installed on, company-owned boxes that remain on-site from the standpoint of productivity, security, hardware maintenance, and legal issues. The initial employee hiring agreement and the employee handbook can unambiguously state what can and cannot be installed on company computers and what can and cannot done with those computers with fewer potential "grey areas". However, using thin clients on-site might be another approach that could effectively address many of the issues raised without requiring employee ownership of on-site boxes. Reply
May 16, 2007 12:41 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Agreed, Desktops are probably better off handled traditionally. This only works where employees are taking equipment home anyway, so for desktops (and this is generally how its done anyway) if it is a home machine the employee buys it, but if it is for work it belongs to the company and should remain that way. Thin clients, diskless workstations, and blade PCs are all good alternatives. Reply
May 18, 2007 9:08 AM Connie Sadler Connie Sadler  says:
But as we move toward diskless workstations and utility computing, it becomes more like employees purchasing their own desk phones. I think it's far more efficient to provide employees with the tools to do their jobs - we just need to take more control over those machines and manage them more efficiently. Reply
Jun 8, 2007 4:38 AM Ebenezer Scrooge Ebenezer Scrooge  says:
Jolly good plan Mr. Enderle! Make your employees responsibility for the cost of the computers they use to do the work you assign them. Genius! But I can go you one better. I charge my employees for pen, paper and the other office supplies they use to do my bidding. Not to mention their mandatory contributions to the cost of coal to heat the office and for the water in the water cooler. Now if only I could get them to pay me for the privilege of working in my sweatshop then all would be well with the world. Do you think you could be a good chap and write some articles suggesting that?Congratulations to you! You are indeed a capitalist lackey of the first degree! Reply
Jun 8, 2007 4:44 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
I think you missed the point, and I clearly did not say the company should charge them anything. Much like a mechanic buys their own tools, increasingly a PC is tied directly to how an employee works, particulalry a laptop. Yet we tend to buy everyone the same cheap box. And once they are dependent on it, if we fire them or lay them off, we take away one of the key tools they will need to search for a new job. While this wouldn't apply to desktop machines I think it should apply to laptops. Writers bought their own typewriters and pens, artists thier own brushes, and I've already mentioned mechanics. I started buying my own PCs back in the late 80s, it made a huge differance in the quality of my work. I simply think that from an IT, and employee, perspective that this would make a great deal of sense for some companies to explore.At the very least, we should allow the option. Reply
Jun 8, 2007 11:13 AM Luis F. Sierra Sosa Luis F. Sierra Sosa  says:
Rob Enderle is suggesting in 2007, employees to buy their own PCs, but he bougth his own PC since the very begining of this PC history.I have been suggesting the same idea for the over 1.5 million teachers in Mexico since 1997, mexican governmet has had a lot of $$$ to save since then, but mexican people has had a lot of everything to lose since then.Hope new governmet be able to make this to happen, otherwise mexicans will never be the Wining people they expect to be Reply
Jun 8, 2007 11:16 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Thanks for the comment, my hopes and wishes go with you as well. Best of luck! Reply
Jun 10, 2007 11:16 AM Sam Jones Sam Jones  says:
Rob, your suggestion is a bad idea for many reasons. It doesn't really work even for auto mechanics. Let me share an experience with you. I used to go to a Midas Auto Repair Shop. I liked the people and they did good by me. One of the things I would have them do for me from time to time were engine tune-ups. That work required some sort of special electronic gizmo.Now Midas required their mechanics to buy their own tools just like you think they should. One day I went in to have a tune-up and they could not oblige me. It turned out that the mechanic who owned the (one and only) engine tune-up electronic gizmo had quit. And the remaining mechanics couldn't do the work without the equipment even though they knew how. The other mechanics just couldn't afford to buy one since it cost around $5000 (which is a lot of money for us working class folks, maybe not for you). Naturally, I went elsewhere and Midas lost my trade. That's no way to run a business! Also, your suggestion puts up great barriers for smart, ambitious workers who know how to do the work but are short on cash. Are machinists supposed to bring their own milling machines to the factory under your plan? Are chemists supposed to bring their own gas chromatographs with them to the lab? Are waitresses now to bring their own dishes and flatware to the restaurant? It is a silly idea and those poor bastards (like the auto mechanics) who are forced to buy their own tools are being exploited.You really should reconsider this suggestion before people laugh at you too much. That is unless you really are, as Ebenezer suggested above, a "capitalist lackey".Have a nice day! Reply
Jun 10, 2007 11:43 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
You are talking about a specialized piece of equipment costing $5000, not a laptop which can be purchased at an entry price of one tenth that. But we are still way off the point but lets use your example. By buying his own machine the mechanic you remember was worth more than the other mechanics in the shop, the equipment he owned he was expert at, and when he left he took the tool with him allowing him to use it to get his next job (and Ill bet he was vastly more successful with it than without it). It was his choice to buy the equipment; the other mechanics didnt and couldnt do the work as a result. So, even in your example, the mechanic (employee) was better off buying the tool than having the company own it. (And Ill bet all of the senior mechanics owned their own tools as well, it was part of what they brought to the job and took those tools with them to every job they held). Those that become expert at a tool shouldnt have to give it up when they leave a job. People take better care of things they own, generally, and there is huge difference in capability between the base hardware companies typically buy their employees the most cost effective parts. Im simply suggesting another path could be better for both the employee and the company. Its not about being cheep, its about doing whats right. Novices use the tools supplied by their company, experts often buy their own tools. Im suggesting we allow employees become experts and make the PC a more personal, a better tool, and one that no company can take away from them. Reply
Jun 11, 2007 2:50 AM jon zingmark jon zingmark  says:
This subject about employees owning their own PC is an important question..the usage of privately owned pc is another..but as information tends to be webb based like google office and companies are webb based then the way you access the information is less important.However the succes of a company is built on employee performance and skils so as previous writer says the work of a company like the auto repair shop is dependent on the gizmos used and therefore the company should own strategic parts of the hardware.Please note that now we are close to the point in time where the content is the most important part.Lets make us have a open platform for access to information and let ownership be for gizmos. Reply
Jun 11, 2007 12:40 PM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
It depends on what is strategic and unique to the company. I would argue the hardware in the previous post should have been purchased by the company while generic tools should not, or that Mechanics should at least be allowed the option of buying their own tools. Master Mechanics generally do that anyway. I think PCs are generic enough now that we could allow personal purchase and then provide a contained, and secured, area of the PC for company information. Access to that area would be controlled centrally, but the tool (PC) would belong to the employee. At the very least expert employees should be allowed the option. Reply
Jun 12, 2007 4:21 AM TanyaM TanyaM  says:
Hi Rob, employees making their PC personal is definately a trend we believe in. But the complexity of "individual IT" in an enterprise -size company is food for our thought. What's your view on business peripherals such as keyboards, webcams, mice etc. Could I assume the budget would also allow for the user to invest in the tools as well? ie. the user chooses the peripherals with his/her choice of PC. Reply
Jun 12, 2007 4:26 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
I see users do that today and typically there are no restrictions on keyboards and mice, there probably should be on webcams, and increasingly there are concerns surrounding USB drives or anything that could pull data off a PC unauthorized. Personally I've expensed keyboards and mice at a number of companies when they wore out and bought my own when I couldn't expense them. Reply
Jun 15, 2007 5:51 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Right now network performance, particulaly wireless network performance, would be an issue. But, I expect, this is the future so we might as well get ready for it. Thanks for posting! Reply
Jun 15, 2007 8:34 AM Terry Laschuk Terry Laschuk  says:
Hi Rob,This was my first read of your blog and I must say you are challenging the norm! Well done. Without free thinkers the world will continue to stagnate and rehash the same old stuff.I choose to use my own computer in preference to my work computer for the reasons you indicate. I control the performance of it, which apps are on it, etc.There will always be people who can't afford the top of the line tools (I have a less than stellar table saw in my garage but it does what I need it to do). Most high tech people are well paid and typically have a computer or 2 at home (it's why they are in high tech to begin with). I think at the very least companies should provide the option - low cost alternative for those who can't afford their own computer, but the option for those with the desire and cash to go their own way. The virtualized company image is unique and provides the control of company decided image content but really if all company data were web based this requirement would go away. With VPNs and secure web connections companies should feel less at risk of having their data web enabled. Then the information viewing device could be anything (Blackberry, cellphone, laptop, etc) without the requirement for any company content except maybe a small VPN client. Your thoughts? Reply
Jun 26, 2007 2:38 AM Peb0 Peb0  says:
I think that there's another important point that's being missed in all of this. If an employee supplies his/her own equipment, this doesn't mean the company they work for get the benefit o'gratis. I've done exactly this in the past. I worked as a surveyor in the oilpatch. Generally the companies will supply everything that you need BUT you are given the opportunity to supply your own. Supply your own truck, get a daily truck allowance. Supply your own quad, get a daily quad allowance. Supply your own instruments, get your daily allowance. AND finally, supply your own computer, get a daily computer allowance. In the end it becomes a win win. It's cheaper for the company (given depreciation/rental rates/wear & tear etc...) and as employees, you make more money.Should employees be allowed to supply their own equipment... dang straight! Does that mean their employers get away with shirking the expense of doing their business... not a chance. Reply
Jun 26, 2007 4:34 AM Rob Enderle Rob Enderle  says:
Agreed, this is the way I would like to see it develop. From an IT perspective it provides the promise of less admin overhead (puchase through disposal) and from the employee perspective, assuming an informed decision, a better set of tools. Thanks for posting! Reply
Oct 22, 2007 6:47 AM SmoothSpan Blog SmoothSpan Blog  says:
How the Internet and Virtualization Remade the Mac... Apple just announced fantastic results today driven by a variety of forces. The world likes to focus on the iPod and iPhone, and those are fantastic businesses, but we should not lose sight of the Mac business. iPod year-on-year growth was 17%, but... Reply

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