The death of the corporate laptop

Let me say from the beginning that I do not predict the death of the laptop as such. Others have been bolder and predicted the outright demise of the laptop. I don’t agree. As long as the methods for data entry in other platforms are so mediocre there will be at least some part of the workforce that will have to use what we today refer to as laptops. The important word in the heading is “corporate”.

Ten years ago there were no smartphones and there were no tablets. There were a lot of laptops but they all ran Windows. Mobile phones were abundant but people used them solely for voice communication. There was a lot of talk about the mobile web but compared to what we have today it was a joke. WiFi was around but had not really picked up. Security was of course important but it had a lot to do with securing the physical network in the offices and the connection between them. And on the browser scene Internet Explorer reigned almost supreme.

In other words, there was very little choice for users. Basically it was down to the brand of laptop – Dell, HP and a few others in various shades of black and grey. Design and usability took a backseat.

Then a couple of things started happening at roughly the same time. Internet access both at work and in homes improved immensely and wireless data really took off. Apple released their line of Macbook laptops followed by the iPhone and later iPad. Android took up the challenge and soon surpassed iOS in number of devices. Internet saw the birth of social media and a whole range of cloud based services. Linux became really usable for laptop users and Internet Explorer lost its dominant position.

This has led to a much wider choice available to users. There are still Windows laptops of course but OS X and Linux work almost as well in the corporate setting. And in the smartphone industry Android and iOS are the dominant players with Microsoft and Blackberry competing for third place.

Bring your own device

The next big trend became apparent in 2009 when people began brining their own devices to their workplace and expected to be able to use them. Today employees routinely bring smartphones, tablets and small netbooks to their work, often because they feel that they can work better or that they just like those devices better than whatever their employer provides them with. Some companies are trying to stop this trend but that battle was lost before it even got started. An employer who does not allow its employees to bring their own devices to work will look unattractive and inflexible. Who would like to work there?

Work from anywhere and on anything

More and more corporate services are moving out from the corporate network to the cloud. File storage is moving to Dropbox, mail to Google, source code to Github or Bitbucket. And so on. A smart company will preempt and embrace this trend, because if they don’t it will happen anyway and then it will not be on their terms. Already today employees are setting up their own file sharing schemes with co-workers and external people using cloud based services like Dropbox.

Meanwhile, mobile communication is getting better all the time. 4G networks can provide better connectivity than many people get via wired broadband connections. And the connectivity keeps improving.

Combining the BYOD trend with the move to cloud services and increasingly better wireless connectivity, it is easy to see the trend towards a mobile workforce where anyone in the company can, and expect to be able to, work from anywhere and anytime on any device. Managers with a control freak tendency will try to halt this trend but they will just end up hurting their companies. The era when a manager could stand in a corner office and judge the state of the company by counting the cars in the parking lot is long gone. Today they are better off using IM, burn-down charts and issue ticketing logs to judge the speed of the organisation.

Down the line

So what happens to the corporate laptop? I believe that all services will ultimately move to the cloud where they are accessible to anyone whether they are sitting in the office, travelling or tending to sick kids at home. When there are no longer any local services, the corporate network will be reduced to just an access network with very little reason for protection other than ensuring that external people are not allowed to get free Internet access.

Many devices will not be owned by the company. So instead of securing the physical network and the client computer it is the server perimeter that must be protected. To avoid data loss if a device is lost the obvious trend is to do more and more editing in real time over a mobile connection.

This also means that companies can more or less let employees get whatever computer they want. They might even want to consider handing over the responsibility of the computer to the employees altogether.

In the end we are back at having content stored on big servers in the cloud and accessing that data from thin clients. Which brings us back to the mainframe era, albeit with nicer looking clients with capacity for local processing and the freedom of mobility that comes with wireless data communication.