The devices end users really want

And why it might be cheaper to give it to them

A study from market-researchers In-Stat on a completely unrelated topic raises an interesting question about telecommuters, bring-your-own-device advocates and smartphone users within major corporations: how much of the data and which applications do they really want on all of the three, four or five devices some studies show they use?

In-stat's study on multi-screen use of multimedia shows a proliferation in the availability and popularity of "multi-screen services" such as Netflix, which can be viewed on PCs, tablets or TVs, or smart TV services like the Verizon FiOS' ability to show the same movie on any TV in any room in the house.

It also shows most consumers keep the bulk of their multimedia content, and watch most of that content, on only one or two devices.

It's not like it's difficult. Netflix is dead simple to see on almost any device that has enough bandwidth to make the video run smoothly. Verizon just introduced a feature called FlexView, which is designed to do the same thing, just as easily.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Samsung demo'd a feature that that automatically connects a tablet or other device with a TV – using a proprietary app and wireless link – to run movies stored on a tablet on the TV or vice versa.

Still, 64 percent of consumers keep and consume multimedia content on one device – usually a PC – compared to 14 percent of households that view content on several screens. The other one-fifth don't want to acquire online video at all, the report said.

And In-stat isn't sure why.

  • Our initial research indicates that traditional demographics, such as age, income, or education are not useful in predicting multi-screen behavior.  Even psychographics, such as In-Stat’s Internet Usage Behavior segmentation (power, social, and passive Internet users), which more accurately predict technology adoption and content consumption fall short. 

My guess would be location and form factor. You don't want to watch a full length movie on a tiny phone screen, or probably even a tablet screen, if there's something bigger and higher-def available, especially if it's something you don't have to hold the device in your hand the whole time.

Unless you're stuck in an airport – in which case you might have time to watch on a PC screen – you don't typically use phones or tablets in situations where you're sitting long enough to watch much video, anyway.

Despite the demand to telecommute and to work from anywhere, most people are creatures of habit. They do certain tasks in certain places and have all the tools to make it easier arranged in that location or in that digital context – not necessarily in the others.

So they may say they want to be able to have full-functional access to all their documents and applications on an iPhone from a coffee shop down the street so they can work wherever they are, the reality is they want to be able to get their email or instant messages to make sure the boss or a customer isn't demanding something right away.

If there is an immediate demand, they want to be able to see and possibly even send along the right information, but they don't necessarily want to sit down in Starbucks and type out a proposal or presentation using a tablet with a touchscreen.

Forrester broke down end-users into four major mobile-computing categories, dividing them not by job descriptions, but by their personal preferences about where they want to be and what kinds of tasks they want to perform while out of the office.

Intel divides its workers into eight or nine major categories and dozens of subcategories, depending on their behavior.

It sounds nuts, or at least far too detailed for IT departments that have been trying to standardize on one type of PC, one type of phone and, as far as possible, one type of end user, for at least the last decade. It makes users a lot more productive, however.

These two studies – which show end users really do want access from anywhere, but almost certainly only want real, full, working access from one or two places and (usually) only one type of device, could make things a lot easier.

The knee-jerk use case pushed by vendors for desktop virtualization is a project that gives every end user the option to run a full desktop from a phone or tablet while walking to the bus as well as giving them full access while working at home or in the office.

That requires a lot of servers, storage, infrastructure, architecture and upkeep.

It would be a lot simpler to give most users VPN access to stored files and/or apps on the network from the PC or laptop they use at home and in the office.

Think of it as tiered access, in the same way you'd structure storage. Users who really do need all-access all the time, from anywhere, on any device, get full-on virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) setups. Those who work from home and from the office, get a good VPN to use with any device, plus access to email from a smartphone.

You'll need more tiers than that, of course. The rest would be filled in by various configurations of read-only or streamed connections to tablets or smartphones or whatever, to both documents and data. I'd be surprised if most companies end up with more than four or five major categories of "mobility" and the infrastructure products to support them.

It's still not easy, but it's an awful lot easier than trying to put together a custom virtual desktop configuration for every end user, or leave a lot of them feeling as if you're snubbing them by not letting them access CRM data from their Xbox.

Kevin Fogarty writes about enterprise IT for ITworld. Follow him on Twitter @KevinFogarty.

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