A blog post by our own Rob Enderle about (and I generalize here) how virtualization could be the tipping point toward a new economic model in which employees are expected to purchase their own computers got me to thinking. More accurately, it got me to chattering with Ann All, one of our editors here at IT Business Edge who (and I think this is fair to say) is about as inclined to lean toward new, edgy lines of thought as I am to be a curmudgeonly stick in the mud.
My initial reaction was to say that expecting users to buy their own laptops, in a knowledge economy, would be a lot like asking them to buy their own office supplies -- to the tune of about $300 a year.
Ann reminded me that folks (including Gartner) have been discussing/predicting a shift to an employee-owned laptop model for years. (As with most of its predictions, Gartner tended to be a little aggressive -- back in 2005, it foresaw that 10 percent of companies would have adopted this policy for laptops by next year, and that's probably not going to happen.)
Many of my complaints with the idea would synch up with those raised by ZDNet's Dan Farber about 1 years ago -- even in a virtualized environment, what happens if the hardware breaks? I think you'd have to throw out classic TCO calculations on client machines -- much of which can be attributed to patching and upgrades -- with virtualization, but still, is it feasible to expect workers to pay for the hardware uptime businesses expect?
My personal laptop died last year -- I messed with it for 3 months before just breaking down and buying a new machine. That's a lot of lost productivity.
In his post, Rob seemed to argue that finally being able to assert total control of employees' work "machines" while letting them do whatever they like on the personal, non-virtualized hardware during off-hours is the ultimate benefit of pushing computer ownership off on employees.
That seems to me to be a legitimate goal, and a real motive for what I would think would have to be a simple re-modeling of the PC hardware cost model -- not an out-and-out shift in who ultimately pays the bills, at least not businesses where computers are considered a necessary commodity. Stipends would simply have to be issued to employees for the purchase and physical support of what IT would consider to be a capable virtualized host -- at least until unfettered access to computing technology becomes as common as, say, access to transportation.
And that's a ways off yet. This Popular Mechanics blog cites Consumer Electronics Association stats that put desktop ownership at 66 percent of households and laptop computer ownership at 37 percent. That's healthy, but clearly not ubiquitous, and there aren't a lot of public computer banks that would open their doors to your entry-level data input and call center teams on a 24x7 basis.
It does seem that there's an inverse proportion to the overall management value of virtualization to a company and the feasibility of employees being able to provide their own machines. Sure, a small manufacturing concern might push the expense of laptops off to its 10-person sales force, but is that same shop going to invest in client virtualization?
I'm also dubious of the idea (here's another point that Ann and I disagree on) that folks who consider themselves Mac or alternative OS users would necessarily be happy working on what would be an even more controlled, more locked-down environment than forced upon them now by the Microsoft behemoth (trying to speak the lingo here). I grew up on Macs, and I'm willing to give folks the benefit of the doubt that they actually like the way they work -- not just the fashion statement they make (whatever that may be in the workplace).
In his post, Rob wrote:
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.
In a virtualized world, IT would still be picking the tools (that's how it would vastly simplify our own lives); users who bought their own systems would simply be picking which platforms they would rather edit home movies on.
Client virtualization sounds like a great cost-saving and control-enhancing feature. And someday, when almost everybody does have unlimited access to mobile personal computing devices, it (or something close to it) will serve as the backbone of how business computing gets done. But at least for the foreseeable future, most companies still need to pay for the basic tools most employees use to do their work.