Client of the Future

A couple of months ago, Citrix invited me to join a GeekSpeak Live panel session about the client of the future. I was on stage with three other virtualization experts, and we were having a lively conversation about what we think where remoting clients will be going. One of the other speakers on the panel said that he believes that client platforms will consolidate and one day everyone will only own one multi-purpose device. I strongly disagreed and I still do – here is why.

Trends such as cloud computing, virtualization and bring your own device are clear indicators that the world turns increasingly complex – and that there’s no “one size fits all” solution. A simple example for this is how people are using their smartphones and iPads side by side with their home PCs, and how they may be adopting Windows 8 tablets in the near future. Consequently, there is a move towards the professionalization of consumer IT, or “prosumerization” in short. You may see this as some kind of reverse consumerization as professional IT solutions start coming to your home. Tools and products which were designed for small and medium size enterprises a couple of years ago are now the standard in home environments. Market research shows that the average IT user owns three or more different devices. According to an article on TechCrunch the number of devices will be growing even faster in the near future. So the transformation to more professional home environment is inevitable.

But what is professionalization? The Free Dict provides a very good definition: “Professionalization is the social process whereby people come to engage in an activity for pay or as a means of livelihood”. Now that more and more people want to be able to read work-related emails or make business phone calls from home every now and then, they start investing into their home infrastructure. Small Office Home Office (SOHO) IT equipment became a mass market over the last years, and the products are low-price by now. Successfully combining a growing number of cheap devices clearly helps to bring many consumers to the next level of IT maturity (or craziness).

Bring your own device (BYOD) may only be a side effect and not a trend in itself. Maybe users only bring cool devices they bought from their own money just because their employers are missing to provide them with the adequate range of company-owned devices allowing them to do certain aspects of their jobs a little better. Just look at the PCs, laptops, tablet and smartphones you find in so many homes. Now add some internet-enabled TV set, video streaming boxes and game consoles and you already have a nice range of standard devices many consumers have access to. Connect them by (W)LAN and the result is a nice semi-professional home infrastructure. Average consumers get used to work contextual, using different devices at different occasions.

Their growing need for system management capabilities injects enterprise tools and methods into the SOHO market – and guess what, a growing number of consumers is able to deal with this. Having an IT expert in the neighborhood suddenly becomes very attractive to many people – good times for geeks. But even without the geeks, consumers get along in most cases. And they are the ones who will put a lot of pressure on IT professionals at their workplaces. How can they explain that an enterprise is not able to provide the same kind of flexibility and computing power at work as consumers have in their homes? Even worse, IT professionals are losing their good reputation as experts when they say that things cannot be done when at the same time their users are able to do exactly these thing in their homes.

When looking at home environments I started defining different categories that are dependent of the IT infrastructure found there:

  • Small Homes (SH): 1 to 2 devices with no dedicated home network
  • Medium Homes (MH): 3 to 8 devices in a home network connected to the internet
  • Large Homes (LH): 9 to 15 devices in a home network with high-speed network and central storage
  • Enterprise-like Homes (EH): More than 15 devices with high-speed network and central management

My mom is on the edge from SH to MH as she owns a laptop and a desktop PC, both connected to a fairly good DSL router. Only adding a TV set with internet connectivity or a smartphone with WLAN capabilities would make her home environment a full member of the MH category. My sister’s family home belongs to the MH category since quite a while. I mean, she got to know her husband on the internet, so you wouldn’t expect her home to fall below MH. My in-laws’ home is steadily moving from MH to LH, not a big surprise if you know that my father-in-law has been working in the IT industry for decades. What my mom, my sister and my in-laws show me is that it’s not one particular group of users that pushes for a modern usage of computers. This goes across generations and is independent of IT skills. In other words, it is not only the so-called Generation Y of today’s teenagers that is demanding modern computer and telecommunication devices on a regular basis – it’s literally everybody out there!

My own home environment consists of multiple whitebox lab servers and a network-attached storage, a variety of both fairly new and quite old Windows desktop PCs, laptops and tablets, different smartphones, iPads and several iPod Touch devices, network-connected game consoles like Xbox + Kinect, Wii and PSP (for the kids, which includes myself), several TV screens and PC monitors plus TV cards for PCs and finally a structured network infrastructure with patch bay, multiple switches, DSL/LAN/WLAN router and telephone integration. This all bumps my home into the LH category. Some of the devices listed previously are provided by my employer, some are privately owned. When working from home, I’m just combining the devices as needed.

It’s interesting to note that none of these devices is very expensive. It’s not that any of the computers costs several thousand € or $ anymore, like it was the case when you wanted to buy a powerful business laptop a couple of years ago. A bit more than a year ago someone broke into our house, but to my big surprise did not steal any of our computers. The police officers investigating the case were not surprised. Dealing with used computer equipment seems to be just too painful and not lucrative enough for thieves, in particular when all devices have registration numbers.

One of my friends working in the IT industry lives in a house that clearly belongs to the EH category. I don’t want to go into details, but the infrastructure and client devices he owns and maintains would be good enough for most small enterprises. Many of these devices don’t really look like computers and are used outside the traditional computer use cases, so even people who are not IT geeks feel comfortable in such an environment. To me, this home is a blueprint of what we will be seeing in many homes in the near future.

All these examples indicate that the variety of devices people own and use will continue to grow over the next years. I’m convinced that we will see more and more tablets being converted into interactive information boards permanently attached to living room or kitchen walls, ready to display time, room temperature and incoming messages. There will not be one single client, but a growing number of client types with different screen footprints and input devices. Depending on situation, context and user needs multiple clients will be used, sometimes even side-by-side. And that’s exactly what will also happen in the enterprise. Why should people accept anything less?

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