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Personal cloud to replace PC by 2014, says Gartner

The increasing use of smartphones and tablets for personal computing tasks is leading users to put a "personal cloud" at the centre of their digital lives, according to Gartner Inc. Where once they would have centralised their data on a PC, probably by synchronising with Microsoft Outlook, they will increasingly synchronise their data using cloud-based services.
Written by Jack Schofield, Contributor on

The increasing use of smartphones and tablets for personal computing tasks is leading users to put a "personal cloud" at the centre of their digital lives, according to Gartner Inc. Where once they would have centralised their data on a PC, probably by synchronising with Microsoft Outlook, they will increasingly synchronise their data using cloud-based services.

Steve Kleynhans, research vice president at Gartner, says: "Many call this era the post-PC era, but it isn't really about being 'after' the PC, but rather about a new style of personal computing that frees individuals to use computing in fundamentally new ways to improve multiple aspects of their work and personal lives."

The question is how cash-strapped companies might be able to afford the increased costs of doing business this way.

Of course, this isn't really a new idea: Microsoft introduced Live Mesh as a cloud-based multiple-device synchronisation service in 2008, and people synchronised their Palm handhelds with online services in a previous century. However, Gartner points out that five "megatrends" are combining to change the way users work. In brief, these are:

(1) The Consumerisation of IT, thanks to smartphones and tablets.

(2) Virtualization as a way to move legacy applications and processes into the new world.

(3) "App-ification" with "the prospect of greater cross-platform portability" from apps rather than programs.

(4) The Self-Service Cloud. which provides users with "a scalable and nearly infinite set of resources available for whatever they need to do".

(5) The Mobility Shift, where users choose the convenience, flexibility and much greater level of freedom provided by mobile working.

While all this is undoubtedly true, it presents IT departments with some serious problems.

The hardware costs are horrendous. IT departments might budget perhaps £500 to £700 for a PC that they expect to last three or four years. Smartphones typically cost £500 a year, while an iPad could add another £500 (and there seems to be a new model every year). Add a consumer laptop such as an Apple MacBook Air or Intel-style Ultrabook and the cost of computing hardware per user may have quadrupled. "Buy Your Own Device" will be the only viable option for many companies, but IT departments will then be forced to support a much wider range of hardware and software than they would normally accept.

The software costs are horrendous. Apparently, there are companies and government departments that cannot afford to move off Internet Explorer 6, launched in 2001, because of the time and cost of rewriting internal applications. Are they going to move everything to the cloud in two years? Virtualisation helps, and IT departments can perhaps minimise the changes by moving to Microsoft's cloud-based Office 365 and cloud-based Azure version of Windows. However, unless companies are also going to shut down their in-house systems, this will lead to a significant increase in costs.

The problem of controlling data will be horrendous. No doubt you could allow users to send business emails a dozen different ways, and use (mostly US-based) cloud services such as Dropbox, Evernote and Toodledo, but you just lost most of your business records and your audit trail. You also lost control of security. Good luck when confidential data leaks, or a contract or trade dispute ends up in court. "A culture of self-service" is a great idea, but it could easily become a recipe for chaos.

The situation is summed up in a new survey by Vanson Bourne, commissioned by Adobe. It says IT departments are "the squeezed middle" between users who want shiny shiny gadgets and boards of directors who want to reduce costs. Are boards that are currently taking a cutting-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face position on upgrading Windows XP and IE6 really going to sanction the huge increases in expenditure that will actually be required to sustain "the consumerisation of IT"?

According to Adobe's survey: "Nearly three quarters (73 percent) of IT Directors say they are being pressurised by the board to cut costs, with only 43 percent seeing the upgrade of software and systems as a priority." Adobe marketing manager Anke Schnedler adds:

"We see that the consumerisation of IT is driving employee empowerment and if they cannot access the systems they feel they need to do their jobs effectively, they’ll take matters into their own hands. This can create a real headache -- both in terms of time and money -- for IT departments who then have to manage and support many different systems, devices (personal and corporate), software packages, versions and other 'homegrown' systems, as well as the security risks that come along with this."

Of course, we've been here before. From around 1977 to 1983-85, many individual users and user departments bought their own personal computers -- CP/M machines, Apple IIs and IBM PCs -- rather than use the slow, unfriendly and expensive minis and mainframes that corporate IT departments had installed. Many IT departments had a tough time wresting back enough control to lock down PCs and make them almost as slow, outdated and unpleasant to use as mainframe terminals.

Smartphones and tablets offer today's workers freedom from IT department constraints, and represent a much larger and much more expensive challenge than PCs did. It will be fascinating to watch the inevitable struggle.

@jackschofield

The New PC Era: The Personal Cloud is part of the Gartner Special Report, Consumer Research: Personal Cloud, which is available on its website.

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