Post PC: Dark Clouds and Silver Linings

My recent blog post, A Post-PC Manifesto, looked at the seismic changes taking place in the IT industry right now - particularly around the onward march of consumer technology into the workplace. In this post I'll share some thoughts about how IT professionals and the IT department can remain relevant in this new world.

First, though, here's an infographic on the growth of Android that for me puts the whole thing into perspective. If this seems impressive, bear in mind that a lot can happen in a year. Google recently announced they had been seeing over 700,000 Android device activations a day, with over 200 million Android devices out there.



Change is Coming

Just to recap the key themes from my previous post:
  • Vendors are keen to kill off the traditional PC, a multi-billion dollar business that most of them (Apple being a notable exception) now make almost no money off. Hence the huge interest in new higher margin areas such as tablets and recasting software such as Microsoft Office as online services, with some companies essentially gambling their net worth on projects in this new area - e.g. see RIM's $500m write-off of the PlayBook
  • User expectations are exceptionally high, based on personal experience of best-of-breed devices (Android phones, iPad tablets etc) and services (Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Google+ etc). Service user technical expertise is at an all time high through the rise of the "Home CIO"
  • Consider that Microsoft, the corporate IT department's friend, is reportedly close to releasing a port of Office to the iPad, and that the iPad is essentially a closed system curated by Apple. The only other platform graced with a version of Office is OS X. What does this say about Microsoft's own views about the future? (and don't forget Kinectimals)
  • A handful of large companies are increasingly controlling our online identities and the key services that we use. So much so that the UK Government recently recognised this with the midata initiative - this will link utilities and public services to identities maintained by the Internet big players, and has significant implications for organizational identity management too
  • Systems and services are migrating from on-premise to delivery as Infrastructure as a Service (you manage the operating system and any packages, but not the physical hardware) or Software as a Service (you get a web dashboard + some APIs if you are lucky). Developers are increasingly using SaaS APIs or cloud platforms such as Amazon Web Services and Google App Engine (even with its recent price hike) rather than coding against the old standards such as Java, ASP, PHP etc
Any one of these changes would be quite significant in itself, but the combination of them throws into question large areas of what an organization's IT department does, and many of the common job roles and specialisms of today's IT professionals. If like my own organization you are currently updating your IT strategy, this is an exceptionally challenging time.



Embracing the Change

What should we do about it? Here is my (slightly tongue in cheek :-) five point plan for adapting to these new realities. Please do leave a comment and let me know what you think.
  1. Get over it - you no longer control the horizontal and the vertical

    IT in organizations will increasingly (but not exclusively) be woven from a fabric of cloud services, vendor APIs and "curated" operating systems (think: Android and iOS). For the reasons outlined above, the days of the organization managing its equipment from the bare metal upwards may be over rather abruptly if the next generation of commodity technology is no longer Windows and Intel based. Whilst high end workstations will undoubtedly still be around for power users, it is unusual for these to be part of a centrally managed fleet - think of the Sun and SGI workstations of yesteryear.

  2. Get up to speed - do a Post-PC pilot

    You already have hundreds if not thousands of Post-PC devices, but the odds are that most of them are owned by individuals rather than the organization. Take advantage of this to start a "Post-PC Pilot" that builds on this existing expertise. If you have any regressive policies (such as banning the use of iPads for work purposes), try to have them suspended or removed altogether and work to promote best practice rather than being prescriptive or proscriptive. For instance you might want to advise people that the Kindle doesn't support WPA Enterprise wireless. That doesn't necessarily make it useless on your campus, but it helps the punter to make an informed decision for themselves.

  3. Figure out how you can add value

    Consider what value you can add to the iPad experience, and by extension other Post-PC devices such as Android tablets and Chromebooks. For example, automatic delivery of infrastructure settings, and mediated access to legacy (Windows) apps. Citrix and VMware clients are readily available for Post-PC devices, and VMware View has even been implemented in HTML5. However, some retooling might be desirable if your organization has virtualized its corporate applications around Microsoft's App-V technology with the expectation of delivery to a "thick" Windows client.

  4. Review your competencies

    Many corporate IT skills that are presently regarded as key competencies are likely to become increasingly less relevant in the Post-PC era. Clearly Microsoft skills are particularly vulnerable if there is no longer a large fleet of Windows systems to manage. However, other competencies will become increasingly important and potentially create new "business" opportunities, e.g. expertise in driving Google and Amazon cloud APIs and networking (particularly wireless) skills. Your organization might even become a provider of cloud services in its own right.

  5. Forge strategic partnerships

    I think we will be seeing quite a bit more in a similar vein to the Nottingham/Birmingham collaboration announced last year. Online systems like Loughborough's Kit Catalogue (funded by JISC) will help organizations to publicise details of facilities they would be willing to share, thorough linked/open data, and open up new income streams for institutions. Why spend $$$ in capital costs for an occasionally used supercomputer / scanning electron microscope / anechoic chamber / wind tunnel / ... if you can rent time on one at a nearby University?


Conclusions


For IT professionals the $64,000 question is of course "will I still have a job in a Post-PC world?"

Some organizations will undoubtedly seek a drastic headcount reduction off the back of this transition -  a transition which may well never happen, it must be said :-)

Should Post-PC come to pass, and (for UK readers) the impact of the new UK HE funding regime not be too great, I hope that Universities (which tend to run their IT operations on a shoestring in the first place) will grasp the opportunity to encourage staff members' professional development so that key roles are better resourced. I also feel that we should be encouraging people to develop in the round through postgraduate courses (cf. the University as a Learning Organization) rather than simply trying to identify the MCSEs and CCNAs of the future.

Take a look at the UCISA CIS Survey, which details the key corporate systems used by UK further and higher education institutions. Does it make sense for everyone in my sector to go out independently to tender for a finance system if half of the institutions choose Agresso? Ditto for student records (SITS), virtual learning environment (Blackboard), and so on. There are a number of fairly self-defining national and/or regional groupings that could take a radical new approach here. Shared services are an obvious outcome, now that the VAT situation has been resolved, although there are still employment considerations around TUPE.

Finally, and at the risk of sounding a bum note - in the move away from the old labour intensive hand crafted IT systems and services to curated Internet delivered commodity services (such as Office365 and Google Apps) and devices (such as the iPad) it is easy to picture the nuances of an organization's character and personality being lost or submerged and a "clone" organization emerging. This could have a disastrous effect on elusive factors such as the constituents of a successful student experience, and is a clear sign if one were needed that radical change must (time permitting!) be very carefully thought through.

I often find myself thinking that the entire higher education sector is being driven more and more by technology into following the path already well trodden by the Open University. It's fitting, then, to close with this OU PR video. Here, I think, is the real challenge - given that we are all increasingly aping the OU, to a greater or lesser degree, what steps do we need to take to assert our individuality and uniqueness? There isn't an App for that...


 


Martin Hamilton

Martin Hamilton works for Jisc in London as their resident Futurist.