iPod lights the way for IT

General purpose computing is starting to get a bad name in IT circles as complexity gives way to dreams of Blackberrys and iPods

What do the iPod and the BlackBerry have in common? Each has managed to succeed where general purpose handheld PCs have failed, even though there is nothing they can do — in theory at least — that a general purpose device cannot.

General purpose handheld PCs can pick up your email. They can play music too. But after the excitement began in the late 90s with the promise of a handheld computing device that can organise your life, deliver your email and even play your funeral dirge, sales have lately been tailing off.

Not so with BlackBerrys and iPods. What we are seeing here is the start of a move away from general purpose devices crammed with every conceivable application and towards devices that do one job supremely well.

There's a lesson here for the whole IT world. At the BusinessWeek CIO discussion evening at London's RSA on Wednesday night (organised by the European Technology Forum, which is owned by ZDNet's parent company CNET Networks UK), complexity was singled out as the bête noir of every IT Director.

Even the Blackberry, which many people love, came in for some criticism due to the complexity of the infrastructure that sits behind it: the network operator contracts, the server and so on. No, the iPod has it.

CIOs are not known for their reticence, and Brian Jones of Allied Domecq lost no time laying into "the ridiculous way in which we have allowed the standard way to handle and access information to be a hugely complicated PC." Fundamentally, he added, that has got to stupid. We hardly need point out where his ire was directed.

Businesses simply do not want more functionality on the desktop: not every user needs the same application set. After all, you wouldn't let a municipal gardener loose with a combine harvester. It's a lesson that seems to have disappeared with dumb terminals, and which only point-of-sale people seem to have remembered.

In the current climate, IT departments care about increasing productivity of users, managing risk and saving costs. Simplifying IT — and in particular the clients — addresses all these needs. We are seeing some moves in the right direction, but it's awfully slow. Sun should have bought Tarantella years ago; the big computer makers continue to pussy foot around the idea of blade desktops, leaving ClearCube to create the market virtually single-handed; and Microsoft (as well as other OS and application vendors) surely has many hearts and minds to win.