According to Steve Jobs, we're entering the "post-PC" era, arguing that, for many of us, tasks previously performed on a PC can now be done on simpler, cheaper, consumer devices, such as smartphones and tablets. Of course, as CEO of the company that brought us the iPhone and the iPad, he would say that (wouldn't he?) but PC sales have fallen recently and the writing could be on the wall for the desktop computer.
Others would argue that there will always be a need for the PC and only time will tell as to who's right. In the meantime it's clear that we're at a pivotal point when it comes to the way IT is delivered, with business use no longer the driving force it once was, at least as far as the user interface is concerned.
The way we were
Since the early days of the PC business buyers have always been king, dictating what went into both hardware and software. If they were considered at all, home users were left to make do with hand-me-downs or ill-conceived "budget" solutions. Products like the Amstrad PC - a quart in a pint pot if ever there was one, which bravely attempted to bridge the business/consumer divide.
Others have come and gone with little success, until now when, with increasing commoditisation and the ready availability of powerful easy to use, portable, devices, the worm has begun to turn. Indeed, computing is no longer the sole domain of the desktop PC and, as hardware margins fall, developers are having to address the needs of the mass market rather than pander to the business world in order to make their profits.
We've seen it happen already with mobiles where, faced with the proliferation of highly functional smartphones able to browse the Web and run other apps besides just email, the Blackberry is no longer the business essential it once was. In fact, somewhat to the contrary, it's become a playground favourite instead.
Much the same is happening in the burgeoning tablet market too where, in the main, sales of Apple's iPad and its Android look-alikes are being driven by consumer rather than business demand.
Sure, there have been attempts by the big-names in business IT to muscle in on the tablet act, but most have been met by failure. Not least Motorola's Xoom, soon to become a Google product along with its developer, plus the ill-fated HP Touchpad, canned together with its operating system just a month after being launched.
More than that, HP has announced that, just like IBM, it wants to get out of the "personal" computer market altogether. Once unthinkable, some analysts see this as an understandable move, even if its PC business is, for now, still very profitable. It's certainly given investors a lot to think about and caused many to take fright, with HP shares falling sharply in the wake of the announcement.
As others wake up to what's happening, however, the HP declaration is unlikely to be the last, with clear implications for the future of business hardware as a whole. Not big ticket items - things like servers, storage and networking products - but definitely for end user devices where the emphasis on delivering what the user wants rather than what business needs could have major repercussions.
Where next for business IT?
More big changes are on the cards, but there are a couple of ways in which business vendors ought to be able to cope with the increasing consumerisation of the user interface.
One of those is to embrace products like the iPad and concentrate on making it fit the business model. An approach made that much easier by the development of cloud computing where processing tasks beyond the limited capabilities of the average smartphone or tablet, can be off-loaded to remote, paid-for, services.
A lot of companies are doing this already and more are bound to follow as cloud-based computing matures and becomes more acceptable. Private cloud deployment will also play a major role here, together with the hosting of virtual PC desktops on powerful server hardware, accessible from simpler cheaper devices.
The other way of coping is to develop more specialist devices that can be sold into the corporate market at a higher margin than those destined for a mass audience.
Some companies, including Cisco and Avaya, have cottoned onto this already, both having launched tablet devices this year. Unlike HP, however, these haven't simply been thrown them into the general fray in yet another fruitless attempt to knock Apple off the top of the tablet pile.
Quite the reverse. Cisco and Avaya have played down the tablet functionality of their devices and positioned them, instead, as convenient mobile interfaces for their respective unified communications (UC) platforms. Moreover, Avaya is keen to embrace the use of other devices and has made clear its intention to port its UC client software to the iPad and other platforms in coming months.
Changing and challenging times, then, for business IT as the consumer device comes to the fore. But interesting times nonetheless, and lots to think about as we enter the post-PC era.
This article is written by Alan Stevens and sponsored by Avaya. The opinions reflected in this piece are solely those of Alan Stevens and may not reflect those of Avaya management