When Apple introduced the iPad in 2010 , the tablet had an immediate and dramatic impact on the computing environment — including business computing. Entering a field that had already seen an influx of smartphones and other ultraportable devices, the iPad sent a clear signal to users and to IT shops everywhere that computing, collaboration and work could be done differently.
While the desktop PC continues to play a role in business computing, there are now other ways to facilitate communication with devices that allow employees to connect in the most effective manner. After all, a better-connected workforce is one that is likely more cost-effective. It’s also one that can use the benefits of new technology to build more flexible work patterns, structures and effective ways to do business.
Today, employees expect to be able to reproduce the efficiency and ease of use of home applications within the work environment. They also expect to navigate seamlessly from home to the coffee shop and to work without connecting to different systems. This requires providing the right tools — desktop PCs, notebooks, netbooks, tablets  and smartphones — to enable communication that is faster, more effective and more productive.
There is a full selection of catalysts that are encouraging businesses of all sizes to consider how to create a better-connected workforce. First, a highly competitive work environment requires the distinct need for improved productivity. Second, the push for better cost effectiveness is required in today’s fickle economy. And third, the need to attract and retain the highest-caliber staff remains constant.
According to the experts, the key is equipping staffers with the right tool for the job. This is likely a combination of all the available options.
“There are a lot of new tablet products coming out,” says Michael Nordstrom, manager of small- to medium-size business marketing for HP’s Personal Systems Group. “Those devices are certainly going to have their place,” he says. “But they’re not necessarily going to replace what a traditional PC would bring to the table for most employees.”
There are a couple of reasons for this. Functionality is one. “These devices don’t necessarily offer the capability that a traditional PC or laptop might offer,” Nordstrom says. “This includes sufficient capacity for multitasking so staff can have a lot of things open at once.”
In addition, particularly in a budget-focused economy, many businesses won’t have the resources to provide a desktop and a notebook, or a notebook and a tablet, to a large number of their employees. “From what I’ve seen and heard, traditional PCs are still going to be salient to organizations — at least for a while,” Nordstrom says.
The desktop computer won’t be going away any time soon, agrees Richard Csaplar, a virtualization and storage analyst with the tech analyst firm Aberdeen Group. “There will always be some sort of device that gets you into the computing environment,” he says. “And that device won’t necessarily be a smartphone.
“4G phones are really the app of the future as far as mobility, ease of use and speed go,” he adds. “There are all sorts of advantages. But they’re not great for data creation. You don’t want to be typing a 2,000-word document on a phone.”
Still, the traditional desktop functions may change, suggests Rich Cheston, executive director and distinguished engineer at Lenovo. He believes that zero-client systems — similar to thin clients but with no operating system — are going to become prevalent on corporate desks.
“Over time, people are going to move more and more to the zero PC,” he says. “The cloud computing phenomenon is going to come in and start to change things. We believe that most of the roads lead to the cloud.”
Eric Leland, a partner with FivePaths, a technology strategy and web development firm, expects a similar evolution path. “The future will see many more software and app options for business users that provide cloud-based service.”
This should relieve pressure on business IT departments to ramp up hardware dramatically year over year if the cloud can handle growing storage and processing demands, he adds.
“Business users will have lighter, more portable hardware for a variety of mobile computing environments that are far easier to replace should they get lost or damaged.”
And they will gain access to the cloud through various types of devices. “As users become more mobile, we have seen a shift into a nontraditional computing environment,” says Mark Gilmore, president of IT consulting firm Wired Integrations.
The traditional desktop device has been augmented by a host of devices offering flexibility and mobility. “The media has ranged from laptops with docking stations, to remote virtual desktops using a browser, to, more recently, tablet-based computing devices,” Gilmore says. “I think each environment tends to dictate its own user requirements; there is no one set standard.”
Is there room for the traditional desktop system? Experts and vendors say yes. But they also concur that these systems can be augmented by other portable devices at attractive price points — even for budget-strapped companies.
As IT shops wade through the available options, the issues for most businesses are cost, management, productivity and security.
“Businesses are still extremely frugal with their budgets and really trying to bring every last little bit of value out of their existing computing infrastructure,” Gilmore says. “Beyond that, they’re trying to say, ‘Is there any way I could possibly leverage this existing computer structure and take it forward somehow?’”
Some possibilities might involve looking at client virtualization or remote desktops. Although these options bring up additional management issues and challenges, vendors are increasingly providing tools to help manage issues such as avoiding virtual machine sprawl and achieving desired capacity utilization.
Grant Ho, a senior member of the marketing team for the SUSE Linux Enterprise platform at Novell, says the emergence of new endpoint devices is creating two key challenges for businesses: management and security.
Novell addresses these challenges through its ZENWorks portfolio, which includes both management and security products. “We firmly believe that businesses need to find a single pane of glass or one unified solution that allows them to manage and secure devices,” Ho says.
“Management of multiple devices within the corporate environment also needs to be automated to some degree. This includes things like distributing apps to those devices, patching software on those devices, doing operating system migration on those devices, doing automated user settings of those devices,” he says. “By automating those management tasks, it dramatically reduces IT headaches and cuts costs.”
Security is a big concern for any business, whether data is threatened or lost due to theft, damage to devices or disaster. And that means any type of disaster, not just natural disaster, HP’s Nordstrom says.
He notes that the HP Compaq Elite Series desktop and notebook systems come standard with file encryption as well as full-disk encryption capabilities to beef up their ability to support information assurance. “Businesses, if they choose, can quite quickly, at no charge, make sure data is as safe as it can be,” he says.
Although cost, management and security represent challenges, there’s a reason that companies are eager to bring new portable devices into the corporate fold. Businesses can clearly gain productivity benefits from the proliferation of these new computing tools. For example, smartphones and tablets allow a company’s employees to work almost anywhere and at almost any time.
Calculating the cost to acquire and support these devices against the possible revenue that increased productivity might bring to the bottom line, therefore it becomes essential. To do that, IT must work with the business side of the company to evaluate the potential revenue value of making an investment in portable devices. In that way, a company can create baselines against which to measure the worth of these tools to the business.
The flexibility that the latest portable devices provide is another benefit for businesses operating in an increasingly global and mobile environment: a workforce in which employees are better connected to one another, whether they operate primarily from a single location or from many far-flung offices.
For instance, the HP Virtual Rooms application, bundled with the Compaq Elite desktops and free for up to a year, lets users share their desktops, make presentations, and collaborate with other employees and customers. What’s more, new software tools are available to conveniently and cost-effectively manage dispersed employees and their devices.
The benefits offered by new end-user options for business computing are many. Yet, there are also challenges in coming up with the best mix of solutions for unique workforce needs.