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Desktop PCs: Dead as a doornail, or maybe just a fax machine

Mobile employees are leaving the traditional desktop in the dust

By James E. Gaskin, Network World
June 27, 2011 06:01 AM ET

Network World - The corporate desktop has looked the same for decades: computer, keyboard, mouse, desk phone, maybe a printer. But do these tools dominate because they're the perfect combination of technology needed for work today, or is the enterprise workplace due for an extreme makeover?

Death of the mouse

According to industry analysts, hardware vendors, architects and futurists, the odds that major changes will revamp the standard corporate cubicle, technology tools and even buildings, rise every day.

Of course, fundamental changes like this don't happen at all once. "When you've got hardware in place, it's tough to yank it out," cautions Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group. "Some corporate PBXs are still in use from the 1980s. Faxing was declared dead in 1995, but I have two in my office."

Enderle's point is that it takes a major event to upset the status quo, but that event, or confluence of events, appears to be happening today.

The proliferation of mobile devices, the broad availability of high-speed wireless access, cloud-based services and browser-based videoconferencing mean that employees no longer have to be tied to their desktop PCs.

Unplanned obsolesence

"The desktop computer really will become obsolete," says Amy H. Tabor, director of facilities planning for RNL, a global, full-service design firm. "This change is driven by the way we work, the need for more flexibility and space use, and the younger generation expecting the difference."

Because employees are on the move, a single desktop computer in every cubicle is no longer enough. "What was once a single device computer system is now a two- or three-device environment," says Jeff Tripp, a Technology Strategist for Enterprise Clients at Intel. The extra devices are laptops, smartphones and tablets.

"It will be interesting to see if the 'desktop' term ever goes away," says Tripp, who works with enterprise Intel customers, and focuses five years in the future. "Younger kids tend to start with mobile laptops or tablets in kindergarten."

RNL, along with Steelcase and OfficeScapes, is sponsoring Workplace-2020, a digital forum to "explore workplace trends, spark discussion, and inspire debate regarding the workspace of the future." Ten years ago, RNL spearheaded Workplace-2010, and built out 6,000 square feet of office space to show off new concepts and provide a place for continued research.

"The technical change is now exponential, faster than ever before," says Tabor, "and will continue to evolve the technology we know. But maybe not as much as the sea change with the arrival of mobile devices and smartphones."

The Empty Cubicle Syndrome

Now that employees are mobile, changes are occurring both inside and outside the traditional cubicle. Jenny Englert, senior cognitive engineer at Xerox, launched a study on the future of work in 2008. In 2009, she focused on mobile workers and the technologies to support them.

"We see new work styles, and even people with their own cube or office are always out at meetings and the like," Englert says. "I'm at my desk only about 20% of the time." Her group followed work practices, rather than technology, and found that as work has become mobile, technology must support that mobility.

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