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The Post-PC Enterprise?

Jan 25, 2011 11:00:00 AM

Former Microsoft Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie said this in a memo released near his sudden departure from Microsoft in November:

As we’ve begun to embrace today’s incredibly powerful app-capable phones and pads into our daily lives, and as we’ve embraced myriad innovative services & websites, the early adopters among us have decidedly begun to move away from mentally associating our computing activities with the hardware/software artifacts of our past such as PC’s, CD-installed programs, desktops, folders & files.

Instead, to cope with the inherent complexity of a world of devices, a world of websites, and a world of apps & personal data that is spread across myriad devices & websites, a simple conceptual model is taking shape that brings it all together. We’re moving toward a world of 1) cloud-based continuous services that connect us all and do our bidding, and 2) appliance-like connected devices enabling us to interact with those cloud-based services.

Ozzie’s memo, now easy to find online, paints a portrait of a future of browser-based productivity offering similar functionality from a desktop computer, a smart phone, an iPad, and other future gadgets. For business, this implies that creating documents and collaborating with team members will happen anywhere, anytime. And it already is at a low level: emailing, light document editing, etc. It’s easy for anyone to see the trend toward more, as Ozzie said, “appliance-like” devices for these low-level tasks – but for high-level tasks like document design, photo editing, etc? These require robust software interfaces now…meaning that unless we can suddenly edit in Final Cut Pro from an iPhone, desktop computers will still be necessary to an extent.

In the bigger picture, though, no one can deny the shift toward cloud computing – toward what Ozzie’s talking about. It’s already begun. Hosted servers are proving more cost-effective than in-house maintenance; browser-based apps are enabling us to work from anywhere in the world; more and more work is being done from mobile interfaces. So what does this mean for the enterprise? For years Microsoft has secured long-term profit by monopolizing the business market. Indeed, today, companies are indebted to Microsoft since their entire hardware and software infrastructure is built on it; shifting from it would cost millions of dollars. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Microsoft’s business products are the best on the market – and are still, by far, a common medium for business interaction.

When we talk of businesses shifting toward post-PC infrastructure, we essentially talk of a post-Microsoft business. Sure, Microsoft has begun offering browser-based versions of Office and Exchange – but hence the context of Ozzie’s departure, things are way behind schedule. When will Microsoft-quality business productivity be available via cloud on a variety of connected devices? And when will someone produce a just-as-good office productivity suite that’s suitable across all appliance OS platforms? And what will justify the switch for the enterprise: lower long-term cost? Lower maintenance levels? Greater flexibility?

The post-PC enterprise is a long way off. And it won’t happen until better alternative technology and Microsoft-caliber software is available across all OS’s. But the momentum is gathering steam, as Ozzie indicates, and soon we’ll be answering the questions we can’t answer now. Tech Republic Editor in Chief Jason Hiner puts all of this in perspective in his 2 January 2011 post:

I will not predict that 2011 will be the year that thin clients replace a lot of desktop PCs…that’s never gained mass acceptance…rather, we are going to begin to see a lot more companies experimenting with desktop virtualization.

Rather than keeping software running at the desktop-level, Hiner says, companies will begin putting their software images on virtual machines – enabling company software to be accessed from a variety of, as Ozzie said, “appliance-like” devices, including a company PC, personal laptops, and smart devices. That way IT maintains control over the software and settings of the virtual machine, and performs less maintenance on the environments of individual ones.

To gather more perspective on this, read Ozzie’s blog post published shortly after his memo was released. 

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