We've seen this movie before. Dramatic predictions that the death of that stalwart of computing, the desktop, is moments away, usually being dethroned single-handedly by a competing technology. In the late 90s, it was thin clients that would dethrone the desktop. More recently, it's been everything from tablets to smartphones to virtualization technologies. Bold predictions like these make for great drama but don't reflect the reality that the desktop is making a gradual and graceful passing, rather than being wiped from existence overnight. Three key trends are driving the passing of the desktop.
Trend 1: Demographics
For the previous generation, a desktop computer was their first and only gateway to technology at work and at home. Everything from email to Excel was accessed through the desktop, inexorably linking computing and the device. Obviously, that connection has been forever broken. Most companies allow employees to access the computing resources they need on a variety of devices, but perhaps more interestingly, the newest entrants to the workforce grew up in an era in which the desktop was not the de facto means to access computing.
While this argument might seem overblown to technologists who can't imagine life without their laptop, I was personally surprised during a recent research project where the general populace universally panned accessing services on a desktop. One younger gentleman went so far as to note that "Laptops are for businesspeople and old guys." The general population, in particular the newer generations and the pool from which you're likely drawing your workforce, see the desktop not as the best general-purpose computing tool, but a relic of a bygone era.
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Trend 2: Decentralized computing
The cloud is nothing new, but its rapid adoption by the consumer market and companies of all sizes has been staggering. A few short years ago, many were wondering whether the cloud was a fad, and now it's the default mode for deploying technology. With most of your data, processing, and storage located somewhere in the ether, a powerful general-purpose computing device makes a lot less sense. Sure, most cloud applications are still accessed through conventional computers. But now that the infrastructure has moved, the end-user devices are freed to evolve in new ways.
Cloud has also created an economic disincentive to the historical cycle of upgrading corporate computers on a regular basis. If you don't need high-powered local computing, why upgrade? This is already causing the big technology companies to shift their efforts elsewhere, with desktop and laptop sales as the primary casualty of the cloud revolution.
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Trend 3: Nextgen interfaces
When you think about it, banging away at a keyboard (especially one that was either designed to slow typists down, accommodate telegraph operators, or help lock out competition in the 1870's typewriter market, depending on which historical research you believe) and staring at a screen are not particularly effective ways of performing many tasks. Even tablets and smartphones don't work very well if your hands are greasy or otherwise occupied.
Voice, augmented/virtual reality, and even neural interfaces are moving from the lab to the workplace. Combined with decentralized computing, it makes perfect sense to have a pair of glasses or nearby microphone and speaker serve as your only workplace computing tool. Even without these futuristic tools, I find myself a bit shocked when I walk the halls of many large organizations and find young people tapping tablets and phones while laptop docking stations and desktops are shoved into a corner.
How to prepare your organization
It's easy to dismiss these trends as another tech-driven argument to buy more stuff. However, taken together, it's apparent that not only is the desktop no longer the best means to accomplish many workplace tasks, but the demographics of the workforce and ubiquitous computing power and connectivity are going to demand new and different ways of working. Rather than lament its passing, consider this future as you build and buy new technology tools. Spend some time observing how your colleagues are using the company's computing resources, especially younger entrants to the workforce. Ask how they'd prefer to work: What devices and interfaces would they use given the choice?
Having done some of your own informal research, when making decisions about your technology strategy and implementation, ask yourself a few questions: How might a key enterprise system present reports on a mobile device? What interfaces might vastly improve a worker's productivity, especially those whose job makes a conventional computer inconvenient? How will your systems interact with voice and provide spoken results? It's free to consider these possibilities, and likely much cheaper to build some of these capabilities into your next IT rollout today than attempt to retrofit or replace later.
The desktop has served us surprisingly well, and like most technologies still has a role to play in the future. However, it's unlikely it will be our dominant interface with technology, and the sooner we prepare for this future, the better.
Is your organization moving away from the desktop as a primary workplace tool? What types of tech are you considering as a replacement? Share your thoughts with fellow TechRepublic members in the discussion below.
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 over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.