Still tied to your desk

Technology may have removed the need for cables and desks, but we are still a long way from working from the sofa.

Technology may have removed the need for cables and desks, but we are still a long way from working from the sofa. Eric Doyle reports

Desktops of tomorrow should be invisible, if we are to believe the technologists. Our view of the desktop will be changed by the growth in power and functionality of the laptop PC and handheld devices; the blossoming of wireless technologies; and the advances being made in videoconferencing, with voice and handwriting recognition systems receiving more development cash.

Surely, over the next five years, only a few will sit at an office desk. Clerical workers will recline in coffee houses, road warriors will be armed with weapons of maths destruction and trading room staff will literally hold their futures in the palm of their hands. Not so, say the analysts. The technology is almost ripe but the environment is not.

Neil Ward-Dutton, principal analyst at Ovum, says, "Since the arrival of the handheld, people have been preaching about the death of the office but it won't happen for lots of reasons - many of them cultural. Personal interaction is important for people to develop ideas and even though videoconferencing is easier to do now, it won't replace this."

This need to come together may mean that the office will always be at the heart of a company but the way it looks could change. More mobility will come by stealth as all new laptops are being fitted with wireless capabilities. IBM has just launched a printer with a wireless interface and, eventually, systems managers will take advantage of these advances. The missing ingredient is the ability to manage the desktop in the way it can be controlled in the wired environment.

Ward-Dutton feels that the new challenges of the unwired desktop have yet to be properly addressed by the technological culture. "The core assumption of management software is that the PC, its user and facilities are all stationary," he says. "Once authenticated, the system knows who the user is in that specific domain. Access to printers, faxes and other hardware and software is fixed.

"If the user is allowed to roam, the system has to be able to decide what facilities are equivalent to their privileges in other domains and this will mean a major change to the way authentication is handled. As the worker is given more freedom, the problems have to be peeled back like the layers of an onion."

Gartner analyst and vice-president Brian Gammage agrees with the view that the desktop will not change radically in the next few years. "I hear discussions about wireless Lans and Bluetooth but though people see the advantages, deployment is not happening overtly," he says. "It is still a major job to integrate the new technologies and manage the older systems. The way things are structured does not encourage new technology."

According to Gartner's analysis, the cost of managing a notebook is 60% higher than a desktop system. "Before we see any major change in the office, costs and the barriers have to be lower," Gammage says.

For any change to happen there have to be pioneers who are willing to take a hit as they strive to stake their claim in this new territory. Although the financial climate and memories of the dotcom bust have given birth to a new conservatism, the drive to gain competitive advantage means that some experimentation has to be undertaken to find what benefits the new technologies can bring.

At Nationwide Building Society the new wave of laptops, the pen-operated Tablet PC, and wireless technologies have been under test for about a year. David Followell, Nationwide's head of business futures and usability, is responsible for developing new business practices based on the capabilities of the roaming technologies. Initially, the Tablet PCs, sourced from Acer, have been put through their paces in the the banking hall of the building society's Bath branch.

"The tablet version of the laptop has fundamentally changed the way we interact with our customers," Followell says. "We no longer have to do all of our interviews at a fixed desk but can take the technology to the customer."

This may change the appearance of traditional banks and building societies. Followell sees the possibility of introducing sofas and other soft furnishings to replace desks and chairs, removing the physical barriers between staff and customers.

Over the past year, ideas have been modified as the strengths and weaknesses of the desktop replacement have been revealed. Using mobile computing, one staff member can pre-process customers by taking their names and registering the nature of their queries while they wait for a personal banking adviser. The preliminary interview means that the adviser can be prepared for complex issues, improving the speed and efficiency with which each customer query is handled.

Limited battery life is a crucial drawback but security is even more important. The Acer systems have served well, Followell says, but data is held locally on the tablets and there is always the worry that one may be left unattended and be stolen. "The tablet format makes sense in this environment but the interface should be the only thing held in the hand with the data residing on our servers in the back office," he says.

This could mean a change in the technology to Windows CE-based thin-client tablets wirelessly linked to the back office.

Gammage believes that cost of ownership will be the inhibitor to any real change on the desktop. While enterprises are struggling to get IT under control, major changes are not welcome especially if this means increased management costs. "Nationwide's challenge is to ensure that new systems and practices are cost-effective. If it can't do that then it is not looking after its investors and that is a crucial factor these days," he concludes.

Desktop details

  • The office is being infiltrated by wireless devices and interfaces
  • Systems management, authentication and access rights are the new challenge
  • Managing a notebook costs 60% more than a desktop.

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