Monday, May 5, 2014

The changing face of the desktop

We've been talking about Bring your own device or BYOD for years now. The concept of the "work desktop" is changing quickly. It doesn't seem all that long ago that IT organizations deployed standardized desktops and laptops.

Actually, we still do that at my location, for those who don't have a preference for what they get; most of our users ask for "a Mac laptop" or "a Windows computer" so we just pick from our standard list. But for those who need specialization that the standard list doesn't provide, we work with those users to spec out a machine that works well for them, and provides some balance for support.

IT shops prefer to use standard models because that's always been the best practice for lowering our Total Cost of Ownership, or TCO. The TCO is more than just the purchase cost of the machine; it also includes the staff time to install software, provide patches, maintain configuration, repair hardware, and generally support the device and the software that runs on it. By providing a small set of standard machines, IT organizations can limit the variety of hardware - and it's easier (and thus less expensive) to support only a few models than if we have to support every "unique snowflake" on the network.

But the face of the "desktop" has changed. BYOD pushes the "standard" model out the door, and IT shops now need to support these varied devices. We may not provide the same "deep" support that IT organizations give to "corporate" deployments, but the users don't want that anyway. They just want IT to let them put their device on the network, and access printers, and they prefer to take care of the rest. So our TCO still goes down on the organization's side, even though we now support more systems.

With the predominance of "web" or "cloud" systems, what about users who just need to get online with a web browser to do their work? BYOD may work for them, but maybe they prefer to have work buy their office computer. Along with BYOD, we need to accept the changing face of the desktop. The Return on Investment (ROI) for purchasing a desktop or laptop computer doesn't make sense anymore. Installing Windows or MacOS, connecting it to Active Directory, installing all the standard office software licenses, etc. just so the user can launch Firefox or Chrome or Safari to access cloud systems - that's not a good return.

This changing face of desktop means finding new ways to provide access to web or cloud systems. For myself, I enjoy using my Chromebook. It started out as a good "travel" laptop that I would take to conferences or to off-campus meetings - and if it got broken or lost, no big deal, it's only $250. And no data is stored on the Chromebook - if it's lost or stolen, I only need to change my web passwords, and no one can use my stolen laptop to access cloud data.

This spring, I'm excited to try the desktop version, the Chromebox. ASUS has a pretty interesting model, very inexpensive at about $200. The concept is similar to a Mac Mini: you provide the keyboard, mouse, and display. You can even use wired networking. Display options include HDMI and DP. The user experience is about the same as using a standard desktop, except that printing may be different. Specifically, you'll need a Cloudprint-enabled printer, or set up a separate system to do Cloudprint for you. (At the office, I've done this with a Raspberry Pi desktop system.)

Chromebox is another option that organizations might use to support the needs of their users. As you plan your organization's IT future, consider if the "classic" Windows or Mac desktop is really what you need. And if you aren't ready to fully embrace BYOD, maybe it's time to take next steps with a web-enabled device.

Update: (June 17, 2014) See also IT Pro Portal for a similar Asus Chromebox M031U review: "The first Chromebox from Asus is a solid, compact, quiet and most of all inexpensive desktop PC. As long as you play to Chrome OS's strengths and are aware of its limitations, it's a steal." For a desktop system that doesn't need to print (conference rooms, etc) or where you can use a Cloudprint solution, there's no need for a traditional Windows desktop.
photo: ASUS Chromebox

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