Desktop PCs: Dead as a doornail, or maybe just a fax machine

The corporate desktop has looked the same for decades: computer, keyboard, mouse, desk phone, maybe a printer. But do these tools dominate because they're the perfect combination of technology needed for work today, or is the enterprise workplace due for an extreme makeover?

Death of the mouse

According to industry analysts, hardware vendors, architects and futurists, the odds that major changes will revamp the standard corporate cubicle, technology tools and even buildings, rise every day.

Of course, fundamental changes like this don't happen at all once. "When you've got hardware in place, it's tough to yank it out," cautions Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group. "Some corporate PBXs are still in use from the 1980s. Faxing was declared dead in 1995, but I have two in my office."

Enderle's point is that it takes a major event to upset the status quo, but that event, or confluence of events, appears to be happening today.

The proliferation of mobile devices, the broad availability of high-speed wireless access, cloud-based services and browser-based videoconferencing mean that employees no long have to be tied to their desktop PCs.

Unplanned obsolesence

"The desktop computer really will become obsolete," says Amy H. Tabor, director of facilities planning for RNL, a global, full-service design firm. "This change is driven by the way we work, the need for more flexibility and space use, and the younger generation expecting the difference."

Because employees are on the move, a single desktop computer in every cubicle is no longer enough. "What was once a single device computer system is now a two- or three-device environment," says Jeff Tripp, a Technology Strategist for Enterprise Clients at Intel. The extra devices are laptops, smartphones and tablets.

"It will be interesting to see if the 'desktop' term ever goes away," says Tripp, who works with enterprise Intel customers, and focuses five years in the future. "Younger kids tend to start with mobile laptops or tablets in kindergarten."

RNL, along with Steelcase and OfficeScapes, is sponsoring Workplace-2020, a digital forum to "explore workplace trends, spark discussion, and inspire debate regarding the workspace of the future." Ten years ago, RNL spearheaded Workplace-2010, and built out 6,000 square feet of office space to show off new concepts and provide a place for continued research.

"The technical change is now exponential, faster than ever before," says Tabor, "and will continue to evolve the technology we know. But maybe not as much as the sea change with the arrival of mobile devices and smartphones."

The Empty Cubicle Syndrome

Now that employees are mobile, changes are occurring both inside and outside the traditional cubicle. Jenny Englert, senior cognitive engineer at Xerox, launched a study on the future of work in 2008. In 2009, she focused on mobile workers and the technologies to support them.

"We see new work styles, and even people with their own cube or office are always out at meetings and the like," Englert says. "I'm at my desk only about 20% of the time." Her group followed work practices, rather than technology, and found that as work has become mobile, technology must support that mobility.

Architects are taking notice of empty cubicles, says RNL's Tabor. "There's more emphasis on building collaboration space. Companies are giving up individual space for team space."

Daniel Burrus, business strategist and technology futurist, is also the author of the new book "Flash Foresight: How to See the Invisible and Do the Impossible", a New York Times hardcover bestseller.

"The workplace is changing dramatically, and the tipping point is now," Burrus says. "In 2010 more non-Windows machines, like tablets, iPhones and other devices, than Windows computers were plugged into the Internet. Smartphones outsold laptops and PCs."

Burrus says that increasingly the computer of choice is a smartphone or a tablet. "We will see enterprise level apps for services workers, sales, maintenance. It's a form factor that's incredibly powerful."

Chuck Wilsker, head of the Telework Coalition, says we all are already teleworkers, but we may not know it. "I spoke recently to a group of 260 businesspeople. I asked how many were teleworkers, and only about 10% raised their hands. Then I asked how many worked only at their primary place of employment and never from home or the road. Only two people raised their hands. The reality today is that almost every knowledge worker is now a teleworker.''

In her research for Xerox, Englert found that mobile workers were outside the office about 80% of their workday. They tried to print what they needed before they left, but that didn't always work. Xerox then introduced a mobile enterprise printer that supports output from a mobile phone.

The video void

On the flip side, employees who regularly work at home can feel isolated. The obvious answer is videoconferencing, but personal videoconferencing has been slow to catch on.

"The big problem with personal videoconferencing is companies bring products to market that don't work with other products," says analyst Enderle. "I've been working on those projects since the mid 1980s, and they just don't work together."

"There are dozens of videoconferencing systems out there now, and have been for years," Wilsker adds. "We will get to interoperability one of these days between phones, and get used to using video. Young people are driving this. I met a 28 year old man from Turkey, and he uses Skype on his laptop to get cooking lessons from his mother, who's still in Ankara."

Lucky for the cooking student, his mother isn't scared of the camera, but many still are. "The biggest problem with videoconferencing for some companies is that some people are self-conscious about being on camera," Wilsker says.

Judging by the number of young people in YouTube videos, future workers won't have that problem. Add in the fact that Apple now provides cameras in front and back of the new iPads and iPhones, and an audio-only conversation may be rare in a few years.

Or you may log in and control a personal telepresence robot to move around the office and talk to people through the speaker and video screen on the robot. Anybots now has these for sale.

Plus, Avaya and others offer browser-based immersive environments for corporate collaboration.

The evolving office

No matter how quickly videoconferencing becomes mainstream, Tabor at RNL says employees have reasons to be in an office with other employees even if they often work anywhere. "Companies will have technology that users can't afford, so it will be centralized. Offices provide sociability, and maintain the company's brand and identity. There's still a need for office space.

Companies must now support four and five generations of workers, Tabor says, in one workspace, because Baby Boomers plan to work longer than previous generations. "Each will have a different set of expectations and demands, and there will be some accommodation of generational preferences. But younger people will drive the innovation, and the most successful older folks will be those who adapt to the newer way of doing things."

"One huge change for the future will come as we leverage Moore's Law and move processing to the cloud," Burrus says. "Watch that jump ahead as you can use a smartphone to access super computer capabilities in the cloud. How about having IBM's Watson in your smartphone?"

No matter what's in the cloud, how devices access that cloud will change soon. Rich Cheston, executive director and distinguished engineer for Lenovo, says, "It's shortsighted to view every endpoint as just a piece of gorilla glass. IT people want better security."

Cheston says Lenovo has developed technology that leverages the capabilities of the endpoint by introducing a way for cloud applications to interrogate clients and treat them differently. Need better security? If your laptop has a fingerprint reader, the cloud app can demand two-factor authentication, then tailor your access based on your increased security clearance. If the cloud application can tell if a laptop has a camera, it can automatically provide a videoconference option.

And your future office will leverage new tools to share information between devices. "My devices should know when I walk into a conference room, and that I have a conference scheduled at the time," says Intel's Tripp. "It should prepare an embedded projector in the room, and make the video connection, etc. This will be leaps and bounds forward. And if my phone has a GPS but my laptop doesn't, they should share information between them."

Englert at Xerox works with the Rochester Institute of Technology in her research. Students ask "Why can't your wall become your workspace," she says. "Walk into a room, and it will customize to you. Tools will become gesture based, not touch. Just look at a software tool, and it will automatically show up. But it's been interesting to see from the young people they wanted face to face interaction."

Intel's Tripp agrees. "It's hard to beat people in one room with a whiteboard for brainstorming with our current technology. Tech is getting there, and smart boards help, but there's value in the daily interactions people have. Hard to replicate walking into a room and working together."

Gaskin is a freelancer writer living in Texas. He can be reached at james@gaskin.com.

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