How to prepare for the end of the PC era

The change in market share of core components, like computer memory, should serve as a leading indicator that changes to the traditional IT model are coming, and change always favors the prepared.

I read recently that, for the first time in history, orders for common DRAM memory chips destined for PCs slipped behind orders for mobile devices. This has little immediate impact for CIOs and end users, but it does signify the end of an era when PCs and their manufacturers essentially controlled the market for components like memory chips and processors.

This change also lends observable credence to the concept of a post-PC era, when the once ubiquitous laptop and desktop are no longer the primary computing devices for most users. It's been easy to laugh off this suggestion from inside the walls of a corporate IT department, but it's noteworthy that control of the component markets is already shifting away from PC stalwarts like HP and toward a new generation of mobile players, many of whom have a small presence in corporate IT. Apple and Samsung have dominated the mobile phone and tablet markets and tend to have a very small presence in corporate IT, compared to familiar brands like HP, Dell, and Lenovo.

Preparing for the end

One of the major hallmarks of the post-PC era, and the one most likely to give the average CIO fits, is that mobile devices are far more personal than the average corporate desktop. Whereas the average worker just a few years ago was quite happy to receive a generic grey laptop and BlackBerry, many now expect their iPhone, Android, iPad, and perhaps even a personal laptop to readily connect to corporate resources. Even if your company forbids access to these resources, employees are showing up with tablets to use as electronic notebooks, forwarding corporate files to cloud-based tools, and the most tech savvy are actively circumventing policies to make their devices work on the corporate network.

This is nothing new to the average CIO, but what is interesting is the growing expectation that corporate IT acts as the dreaded "dumb pipe" — they provide the infrastructure and resources but get out of the way on device selection, configuration, and restriction.

The best initial approach to dealing with this shift is gaining a deeper understanding of how your workforce expects to use its devices. Look to the newest entrants to your company for guidance, spending some time with hires straight out of school as well as hires from other companies. These people are the least familiar with your policies, and in many cases, they've come from organizations of different sizes or shapes than your own. Ask these people what they expect in terms of computing resources, and what they experienced at other organizations. You don't need to adapt to every whim of this community, but their feedback will provide a good gauge of where your company stands in relation to the larger industry, and it may give you an early warning of an end user "revolt" if you have an overly restrictive policy.

For the longer term, consider what it means for your IT organization to get out of the end-user device business. For example, it may be liberating to no longer spend resources provisioning and tracking a giant pool of equipment. On the negative side of the ledger, the problems are well known — like supporting devices not controlled by IT and being deluged with questions related to everything from a bleeding-edge consumer platform to an ancient device that a misguided user wants to connect to the network.

It's easy to focus on the negatives and dismiss the notion of an era when corporate IT becomes what amounts to a cloud service provider, rather than a one-stop hardware and application provider. The change in market share of core components, like computer memory, should serve as a leading indicator that changes to the traditional IT model are coming, and change always favors the prepared.


Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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