If you count 'luggables' like early 80s KayPros and Compaqs, laptop PCs preceded smartphones in big business by at least a quarter of a century.
So it's ironic that it's the younger, less-powerful device that is paving the way for companies to belatedly liberalize their policies around workers' PCs.
Corporate IT workers have long enjoyed the right to bring in their own, non-standard machines (think a MacBook or a Linux-reimaged ThinkPad).
Mainstream employees were forbidden, their lack of tech savvy being the rationale. And it's the rare small business or creative firm that gives cash to employees to buy their own laptops.
But companies are finally starting to embrace 'Bring Your Own Computer':
- Carfax today gives employees interest-free loans for new computers, and expects to grant them real stipends by year's end.
- Remote access vendor Citrix Systems gives workers $2,100 towards the PC of their choice.
- Most significantly, Kraft Foods announced last week that it plans to let employees buy their own PCs. Kraft, with 97,000 employees, will offer a stipend and free copies of Microsoft Office and a security software.
It wouldnâ??t have been the $2,800 price ($6,000 in todayâ??s dollars) that wouldâ??ve kept employees from buying and bringing this Kaypro 10 to work in 1983, it wouldâ??ve been its rotator-cuff-tearing 29-pound weight.
Kraft's announcement brought out skeptics such as bnet.com columnist Erik Sherman, who argues the idea is "so fraught with technical, operational, security, and legal risks that something bad is bound to happen."
Sherman bases his argument on legal ambiguities over who owns the PC and whether Kraft will be able to monitor it, lack of cost savings both upfront and over time (due to the complexity of supporting multiple brands), and more security headaches.
His uncompromising stance caused most commentators to violently disagree with Sherman. The hot-tempered debate is worth a read for both the facts - and the fireworks.
Sherman doesn't disagree that BYOC is catching on. The biggest catalyst is the (Bring Your Own Smartphone) policy corporations have been rolling out for the past several years, due to the wild popularity of the iPhone, and, now, Google's Android.
Besides smartphones, there are at least a trio of other forces pushing BYOC. One is the general trend towards mobility and telecommuting that has seen laptops replace the desktop as the hardware of choice.
The second is Apple's adoption of Intel CPUs, which enabled Windows and its apps to be run virtually, and made MacBooks acceptable to Corporate America.
Finally, the rise of cloud computing and SaaS, which is also lifting thin clients and desktop virtualization.
(Full disclosure: Sybase's Afaria software enables IT departments to remotely manage and secure laptops and smartphones, including employee-owned ones. Also, Sybase has internally had a Bring Your Own Smartphone policy for the past year. It has been such a success that CIO Jim Swartz says he is considering a BYOC one, too.)
Sherman and other BYOC detractors have some good points. But their view is consistently glass-half-empty when not justified.
Sherman argues, for instance, that cloud computing and hence BYOC will be held back by the many companies relying on Internet Explorer 6 for their custom Web apps.
I don't agree: IE 6's market share is just 17.6% today. And Microsoft is begging users to drop the 9-year-old browser.
BYOC critics also overestimate the difficulty for IT departments to support multiple PC brands and platforms. IT departments are today able to handle multiple smartphone platforms using tools from Sybase and others. Equivalent Mac-Windows cross-platform tools have existed in the PC space for several years.
Meanwhile, BYOC critics underestimate the ability of IT departments, using the right tools, to segregate corporate data so that the most vital data lives under lock-and-key on the server, making it very difficult for employees to steal.
BYOC also makes a lot of workers happier, especially younger ones. Combine that with the many industry forces (iPad momentum, anyone?) working to make BYOC a no-brainer, and I expect a lot more news this year about corporate self-provisioning programs.