At Freeform Dynamics, we have been looking pretty closely over the last few years at the question of how client computing is evolving.

Of particular interest to us has been the question of how use will change with the growth in the variety of computing devices now available and how they will be bought, provisioned, secured, used and supported.

We have run many surveys investigating opinions and trends in this area.

These are leading us towards a view that the personal computing world of the future will be one where information, identity and context are the defining elements of how users interact with information and services rather than devices themselves.

It's important to realise that the world is becoming more mobile, but also that despite some claims that the day of the PC is over as new devices arise, the traditional PC will remain the mainstay of personal computing.

Our research also shows that for many companies the PC is becoming even more important as there is a major shift from individual, defined workspaces with a fixed, desktop PC to the use of notebooks as companies become more information centric and employees look to work more flexibly.

The PC remains the king of content creation, but it is not perfect for everything and this is opening the way to a multi-device world.

When we look at which devices are regarded as important, we are told that it is the phone will be the main complement to the notebook, increasingly in the form of the smart phone accessing information and applications in addition to being a great communicator.

Of all the devices a person uses, a phone is likely to be the one they miss first if it breaks or goes missing.

Tablets, for all the hype, are today generally best seen as being a nice-to-have device that slots in-between the PC and phone and is most likely to be used as a complement to either or both, rather than as a direct replacement for either.

So why are we bringing this up right now? Surely IT can evaluate these devices over time and roll out and support them as it has done in the past?

Before we look at this, it's important to realise a trend towards consumerisation in the computer industry, where users want to make their own decisions on what technology and services they wish to use, often without the advice and support of the IT department when they are used for business.

Consumerisation is of particular importance right now as there has been a fundamental shift in the economics and volume of computing.

Affordable computing
Historically, computers were expensive to develop and bring to market, with the result that for decades few consumers could afford to buy them.

It was businesses that bought the latest computing technologies and dictated the direction of development. This resulted in an enterprise computing market that was large, valuable and influential, while the consumer market lagged a fair way behind.

This trend has now quite dramatically reversed where personal computing devices are concerned.

The economies of scale of computer development and manufacturing have bought performance and price points to a level where consumer focused computing technology is the equivalent of, if not better than, stable enterprise kit.

In the case of the PC, the notebook market has switched from being dominated by enterprise sales in the early 2000s, to being a mainly consumer driven market today.

Equally, smart phones have moved on from being expensive and requiring dedicated infrastructure to link to enterprise services to being fairly mainstream and slotting into existing services easily.

The move to multiple devices coupled with a situation where new technologies are often being pioneered by consumers who wish to use them, not only in their personal life but also to help with their day to day business activities, has the potential to create a major headache in managing and securing IT.

One of the frequent pronouncements we hear is that freedom and choice are the way of the future, and that IT departments need to adapt to the will of the user.

But if we look at the practicalities, what does this mean in practice and just how far is it reasonable to go?

Every device connecting to IT services represents a potential risk, so keeping on top of the situation is vital. The first thing to acknowledge is that the time of IT being able to decide on its own what can be used is coming to an end.

If staff are starting to use their own kit, trying to keep on top of the issue by stopping it completely will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

Managing consumerisation
The end result is most likely that use will go underground — hidden, unmonitored and unsecured. In the same vein, allowing users free rein to choose whatever they like will probably lead to a mess and represent a severe security risk.

To try and keep the situation manageable, you can employ a number of approaches to manage the situation. The area is complex, so different groups within your business may require the adoption of alternative strategies depending on the requirements of the group in question.

In a situation where people are using their own devices and services it is worth evaluating whether what they are doing adds value to the business. 

If it does, then you can either embrace and control what they are doing or replace it with a solution that is perhaps better aligned with the requirements of enterprise IT in areas such as reliability, manageability, cost and support.

Where there is no clear business benefit to users bringing their own kit, it is worth establishing the boundaries of acceptable use. We've touched on a zero tolerance approach, but more realistically this will be about setting clear policies of what is acceptable and allowed.

Successful setting of boundaries and expectations will most likely require working on developing these in conjunction with the user base. An example may be that bringing smart phones or tablets to work is acceptable provided they are on a short list of approved devices and that they have a minimum defined security policy in place.

It is clear that the ready availability of very sophisticated computing technologies at consumer price points is changing the way people think about computing and communications. Working with the business on ways and means to support the change will mean that you can start to keep on top of a very complex and fast moving challenge.

Andrew Buss is service director at Freeform Dynamics

Pic: Mike Licht cc2.0