Why the cloud may finally end the reign of the work computer

The era of "bring your own computer" could soon be upon us.

Work Place by cell105, on FlickrIt’s been a debate within organizations as long as I can remember: whether it’s possible to support a workforce that has the choice to use their own computers to perform their work. Recently the discussion has reached new levels of excitement as some big name organizations have initiated pilot programs. For IT leaders it’s a prospect that’s both compelling and daunting.

Technology developments over the years have made software more hardware agnostic, such as the introduction of the web browser and Java. Personal computers have largely become commodity items and their reliability has significantly improved. Yet, despite these events, bringing your own computer (BYOC) to work has remained an elusive goal.

Why bring your own computer to work?

From an IT leader’s perspective, the reasons for supporting BYOC are pretty clear. In an environment where CEOs want more of the organization’s dollars assigned to value-creating investments and innovation, the ongoing cost of asset management continues to be an unfortunate overhead. From procurement and assignment to repairs and disposal, managing large numbers of personal computers represents a significant dollar amount on a CIO’s budget.

The second driver is the desire of employees to use the equipment they are most comfortable with to do their jobs. We know that for most, a personal computer is not simply a black box. From wallpaper to icon positions, a computer often represents an extension of the individual. If anyone needs more convincing, just try and pry an Apple computer away from its user and replace it with a Windows machine (and vice versa). People have preferences. Enterprise-provided computers are a reluctantly accepted reality.

Why can’t we bring our own computers to work?

With these compelling reasons and more supporting BYOC, why has it not happened? The first reason that comes to mind for most IT leaders is the nightmare of trying to support hardware from a myriad of vendors. It flies in the face of standardization, which largely helps to keep costs and complexity down. In addition, organizations have continued to build solutions that rely on specific software and hardware requirements and configurations. Finally, there is both a real and perceived loss of control that makes most security and risk professionals shudder.

With all that said, there are now some substantive reasons to believe BYOC may soon become a reality for many organizations.

Times they are a changing

[Many of you can skip this brief history recap] When the web browser emerged in the 1990s, there was some optimism that it would herald the beginning of a world where software would largely become hardware agnostic. Many believed it would make the operating system (OS) largely irrelevant. Of course we know this didn’t happen, and software vendors continued to build OS-dependent solutions and organizations recommitted to large-scale, in-house ERP implementations that created vendor lock-ins. At the time, browser technology was inadequate, hosted enterprise applications were weak and often absent for many business functions, and broadband was expensive, inconsistent, and often unreliable across the U.S.

Skip forward and the situation is markedly different. Today we have robust browsers and supporting languages, reliable broadband, and enterprise-class applications that are delivered from hosted providers. It’s also not uncommon anymore for staff to use non-business provided, cloud-based consumer applications to perform their work.

Oh to be a start-up! If we could all redo our businesses today, we’d likely avoid building our own data centers and most of our applications. This is one of the promises of cloud computing. And while there will be considerable switching costs for existing organizations, the trend suggests a future where major business functions that are provided by technology will largely be non-competitive, on-demand utilities. In this future state it’s entirely possible that hardware independence will become a viable reality. With the application, data, business logic, and security all provisioned in the cloud, the computer really does simply become a portal to information and utility.

Smartphones are already a “bring your own computer” to work device

The smartphone demonstrates all the characteristics of the cloud-provisioned services I’ve discussed. In many organizations bringing your own smartphone to work is standard practice. Often the employee purchases the device, gets vendor support, and pays for the service themselves (a large number of organizations reimburse the service cost). It’s a model that may be emulated with personal computers. (That is, if smartphones don’t evolve to become the personal computer. That’s another possible outcome.)

I believe fully-embraced cloud computing makes BYOC entirely possible. There will continue to be resistance and indeed, there will be industries where security and control is so inflexible, that BYOC will be difficult to attain. There will also be cultural issues. We’ll need to overcome the notion that providing a computer is an organizational responsibility. There was a time when most organizations provided sales-people with cars (some still do). Today we expect employees to provide and maintain their own cars, but we do provide mileage reimbursement when it’s used for business purposes. Could there be a similar model for employees who use their own computers? Today, for BYOC, some enterprises simply provide a stipend. What works and what doesn’t will need to be figured out.

So what now?

So what are the takeaways from all of this? First, BYOC is a real likelihood for many organizations and it’s time for IT leadership to grapple with the implications. Second, the emergence of cloud computing will have unanticipated downstream impacts in organizations and strategies to address those issues will need to be created. Lastly, we’ve already entered into a slow and painful convergence between smartphones, personal computers, consumer applications and devices, and cloud computing. This needs to be reconciled appropriate to each industry and organization. And it has to happen sooner than later.

When the dust settles, the provision of computing services in the enterprise will be entirely different. IT leadership had better be prepared.

Photo: Work Place by cell105, on Flickr

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  • Alex Tolley

    If I bring my computer to work, can I charge a rental for the corporate use of my asset?

    Does ownership of the machine guarantee privacy of content? If so, can employees walk out of the company with corporate secretes without risk of inspection?

  • http://radar.oreilly.com/reichental/ Jonathan Reichental

    Hi Alex:

    You raise good questions.

    I think, at least in the medium-term, bringing your own computer to work would be offered as an option rather than a requirement.

    For your second question, I would argue that there is nothing that guarantees privacy of content or corporate secrets when the asset is owned by the organization. Most of us sign some paperwork when we join an organization where we make promises around appropriate use of corporate data. If you’re also referring to your own personal data on your own PC, I think you would need to address that, if you had concerns, perhaps via partitioning, desktop virtualization, or encryption.

    Thanks.

  • http://twitter.com/mscionet Steven Ramirez

    Jonathan, this is excellent. Having been in tech so long, though, I’m guessing that organizations will refuse to embrace this model fully. Most will resist as long as they can and the rest will cling to the “list of approved devices.”

  • http://www.istudioweb.com/ Vlad (Small Business Blog)

    Scene 1:
    When I work as a consultant at the company bringing my own laptop is either highly encouraged or required. If I am an employee at the same company, bringing my own laptop may result in what they call a “disciplinary action”. Oh, the irony.

    Can you steal sensitive company data? Yes, especially if you are a contractor and therefore have less ties with a company.

    Scene 2:
    HIPAA-compliant institution, no one (including consultants) is allowed to use anything, but bulk, ugly and oh-so-last-century laptops provided by IT department. Each laptop has a (disabled) hardware encryption chip and a hard drive encrypted by some software. Yep, that’s how clueless the IT department is, but that’s not the point. Every single useful web site is blocked by the firewall – web mail, hosting providers, you name it. What do you think the chance of BYOC there? Zero or less.

    Can you steal sensitive company data? Still yes – just take your laptop home a few times and don’t connect to company’s VPN when you hook it up.

    My point:
    As you can see there is little of what you can do from an IT prospective that would ensure the safety of the data. There is nothing technically sophisticated in each scene. The safety of the data relies not on technology, but on people employing it. Once C-level executives figure that out (in only hundred years or so) – no one would care what is it that you are using to get your job done.

  • LouisTF

    On the other hand, several characteristics of Cloud Computing indicate the Company-issued PC will continue to be the standard:

    1) Reduced management costs of that employer-issued System. Instead of having to maintain a lot of applications on that endpoint, only need to support the web browser, remote desktop software, and networking utilities. Everything else — productivity apps, data, processing power is in the cloud. Another point is that upgrades are going to be less frequent. Web browsers and remote desktop software don’t need a lot of resources, so the replacement cycle gets a lot longer — more limited by physical breakdown (buttons falling off, screen cracking) than by RAM, CPU, Disk getting too small.

    2) Cloud requires standardization of that endpoint. So supporting hundreds of uniquely configured endpoints will be a nightmare. Much cheaper to give the employee an inexpensive computer — with standardized browser and access software — for work.

  • LouisTF

    BUT….BUT…BUT..
    That “company issued computer” may be, itself, a virtual machine image.

    Much cheaper to produce, issue, and update. Then you can run your “company issued computer” on any system that can run the supporting virtualization software.

    Sure, the host system is still going to do the network access, but especially for work-at-home types, that is not such a problem. More of an issue if you are bringing your own system into work I suppose.

  • http://radar.oreilly.com/reichental/ Jonathan Reichental

    Thanks Steve and Vlad for your comments.

    Louis – really like your second comment regarding a virtual image. Adds another flavor to the debate.

  • http://jegriffin.com Eric Griffin

    Note also that certain jurisdictions, notably California, require that an employer provide at its expense all the “tools” required by the employee to perform the job.

  • http://www.thefourthrevolution.org Jeremie Averous

    Hi Jonathan
    I like very much your visionary post on individual interfaces (currently called computers). I still doubt we’ll escape from some kind of personalized interface device, portable, that will serve us.
    And also there are still quite a number of places that are not so well connected so for the traveller, cloud solutions are not immediately practical!

  • http://radar.oreilly.com/reichental/ Jonathan Reichental

    Thanks for your comments, Eric and Jeremie. You remind us all that progress is not easy.

  • http://www.sourdoughhome.com Mike Avery

    I’m not sure that I can define “progress” as my assuming more of the costs of my employer’s business.

    There are SO many reasons I think this is a very, very bad idea.

    As a long term IT nerd, I don’t want to expose my employer’s data to whatever the staff has on thir computers. Keeping the ones we buy and control clean is hard enough.

    On a who’s paying for this level, if my employers wants me to use a computer, they can provide one, or make arrangements to compensate me for my expenses in maintaining the computer for them.

    And on the personal live versus work balance, my late mother-in-law told me the reason we have so little free time today is because we never leave work behind. Using my computer to do my employer’s work is yet another encroachment into my free time and space.

    It’s a bad idea for all, and I hope this dies the quick death it deserves.

  • Joel Dino

    Looking forward to this change in my personal and business life. I want all the opportunities to help make this happen rather than to resist and get left behind.