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« Windows 8 Beta | Main | Microsoft Office 15 Technical Preview »
Monday
Feb062012

Enterprise of the Future

In today's world it's very common for a person working in an Enterprise (or even SMB) to carry an impressive haul of tech. Even the average user is likely to have:

  • Work Laptop (e.g. PC)
  • Work Phone (e.g. BlackBerry)
  • Personal Laptop (e.g. PC, Mac, etc)
  • Personal Phone (e.g. iPhone, Android, etc)

This is impractical, expensive and becomes increasingly frustrating for modern road warriors. As a result I believe there is a huge opportunity for the smartphone (or tablet) to become the one single device for both business and consumer. That's right, I even think it can replace the traditional work and personal laptop.

What's my vision?

I see the smartphone essentially having two environments, where you have your standard mobile OS (like iOS or Android) which will work just like it does today, offering access to mobile applications, voice, video and messaging. However you also have an app that provides access to a traditional desktop OS (like Windows or Linux), providing access to full applications, such as Word and PhotoShop, etc.

In my vision, I see a world where the users smartphone starts each day as a standard handset, however when they enter the office they are able to dock the device into a cradle that includes power, video out (e.g. DisplayPort), Ethernet and potentially a couple of USB ports. 

Once docked, the user launches an app that gives them access to their full desktop operating system. This operating system could be running local on the device or (if appropriate) streamed via Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI).

With the addition of a Bluetooth mouse, keyboard and headset the user would have all the traditional peripherals they need to interact with the operating system (just like they do today with their laptop).

As the device itself is still a phone, they would continue to be able make and receive calls (accepting them via the Bluetooth headset), with the potential for the traffic to be seamlessly routed over the office network (fixed mobile convergence), resulting in additional cost savings.

At the end of the day the user will be able to un-dock their device, safe in the knowledge that their entire working environment is with them at all times and fits neatly in their pocket.

This model would also align to the "office of the future", where users no longer have a dedicated desk, but instead can dock anywhere in the office to gain the same level of access. This could include docking at home, where remote access technologies (such as Cisco AnyConnect or Juniper JUNOS Pulse) could be used to seamlessly build a secure VPN tunnel to the office network.

Regarding storage, I see all documents being available across all environments (if permitted by security), allowing simple "always available" access. This would likely be partnered with cloud storage (think Box or iCloud) to reduce local storage needs, backup and to perform cross platform synchronisation. 

Finally, as the traditional desktop is loaded via an app, it is feasible for the user to have a completely separate work and home environment on the same device. This could even run a different operating systems (for example Windows and Linux) and include different levels of security (encryption, etc).

Is this even possible?

Smartphones are getting more powerful everyday, the latest Android devices are already dual-core beasts, with 1GB RAM and up to 64GB of storage. With the expected release of the iPhone 5 later this year we will likely see quad-core processors and upwards of 2GB RAM. This is some serious tech!

As the technical gap between the smartphone and the traditional laptop begins to reduce, we start to see an opportunity for cross usage. For example we already know that Microsoft is working to make Windows 8 ARM compatible (the architecture used in smartphones) and even if they didn't, the power available should be enough for a company like VMware to deliver a client side virtualized environment.

In fact, this vision has already been demonstrated (with some limitations) by a number of different companies. The video below is from Citrix and although is quite unflattering, it does show a full desktop operating system running on an iPhone 4 using a virtual environment:

The primary limitation in this video is related to Apple's tight software / hardware guidelines. Resulting in a lack of mouse support, although technically speaking there is no reason why this could not easily be added (as proven by the Jailbreaking community).

What are the benefits?

User Experience: 

The first major advantage is portability, as the user would no longer need to carry multiple devices to the office, instead they just require their smartphone. You also get the ease of use from having one device regardless of your requirements. If it's work or home, a simple e-mail or a full document, you know that everything is available and easily accessible from one device.

Cost: 

The average start-up cost per user for a business today is around £2000, this includes the laptop, monitor, dock, peripherals, desk phone and smartphone (normally a Blackberry). However, this doesn't take into consideration the ongoing costs, such as support and maintenance, which for traditional PC hardware (for example from HP or Dell) can be surprisingly expensive.

Now imagine if you could remove the PC components and scale back to a single smartphone for each user, this in itself could reduce the start-up cost per user to less than £500. It would also have an impact on the ongoing support costs, as the number of hardware devices will be significantly reduced, resulting in a simplified support process. 

Finally, due to this new found user portability, businesses could embrace a truly mobile office, by having universal docks and peripherals that everyone can share (hot desks). This could further reduce costs, by removing the need for a dedicated desk, monitor and dock per person.

Support:

As previously described the first major benefit is a reduction in the number of hardware devices needing to be supported. However, I believe the main advantage is the migration to an "app based" full desktop operating system (virtual or otherwise). This means that even in the event of severe software issues (for example BSOD at launch), the operating system can simply be re-built (just like a virtual or ghost image), before copying back the data from the local smartphone storage or the cloud. This process can even be completed remotely, as the user can connect back to the office network using the mobile OS VPN capabilities. 

This process is made more complicated on a traditional laptop, as the user is unable to recover the device to a state that would allow support staff to connect. Often meaning the laptop must be returned to base for repair, which will likely impact productivity for multiple days. 

Security:

One of the major concerns of this vision would be security and the increased risk of loss. However in my opinion this risk is no greater then a traditional laptop and even offers a number of advantages. For example, on top of standard device and app encryption, the majority of modern smartphones have "always on" internet and GPS capabilities. This means that remote wipe and device location services can be enabled as default, something that is unlikely to be available on a traditional laptop.

Power Efficiency:

With the whole world attempting to be greener and more eco-friendly, a move to a single low powered device (replacing a power hungry laptop) will help ensure that office power consumption is kept to a minimum. This will not only reduce operating costs, but also hopefully help save the environment.

Will it ever happen?

After selling the benefits of this solution, the only remaining question is will it ever happen? As demonstrated in the video above we have proof that Enterprise focused companies such as Citrix are interested in this model and that technically it can already be achieved today. However I personally believe there is even more evidence that this vision is not only possible, but an industry shift that is already in motion...introducing Microsoft Windows 8!

For those of you who have been following the Windows 8 development, you will know that Microsoft have taken a "one operating system to rule them all" approach, by introducing a new "Metro Style" user interface which is set to replace the traditional start menu and to a lesser extent the desktop.

I believe this approach aligns perfectly with my vision, by opening the possibility for a mobile device (smartphone or tablet) to offer a touch experience while working mobile (with the new Metro UI), while still providing access to full desktop applications when required (in the office). On top of the user experience changes, Microsoft have also announced the Windows 8 minimum requirements, which interestingly focus on power efficiency and portability, instead of raw power (like previous version of Windows). As stated earlier this drive towards mobility also includes the transition to ARM based devices, again positioning Windows 8 hardware perfectly as the one device for all purposes.

The final point worth mentioning is a rumour that Microsoft plans to transition the Windows Phone operating system over to the Windows 8 kernel. If this is true, then it is possible for the smartphone to become the single device, balancing the gap between the mobile and desktop environments and perfectly meeting the requirements for my vision to succeed.

To conclude I think we are already on the road to this vision, with Microsoft leading the way. The main challenge is that although Microsoft have been incredibly bold with their direction for Windows 8, they have been less forthcoming with their communications. Therefore it is unclear exactly how everything will play out and if the industry will embrace these significant changes to the user experience.

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