Every now and again, when they have no real news to report, there’s nothing that the technology journos over at the BBC News site like to do more than rake over a well-worn argument and fan the flames again. Okay, I’m being a bit mean, because this particular argument is worthy of being occasionally re-visited.

About this time last year, as I battled in vain to keep a customer on Lotus Notes, one of the big cheeses in their IT organisation told me that when the iPad 2 was released they’d stop buying laptops and start handing out iPads. I asked him three things:

  1. How would the iPad owners print?
  2. How would they receive a spreadsheet via e-mail, edit it, and send it on?
  3. How would they manage an iPad without a computer to tether it to?

He drew a blank on all three. I was also going to ask why he was making a decision based on a product that hadn’t even been announced yet (and therefore didn’t have a set of detailed features), but I could see it was time to move on from that conversation. A year later, improvements to iOS and availability of apps have answered questions #1 and #3 (so I believe) but not #2 (if I’m wrong, I’ll willingly stand corrected). By the way, they did throw Notes out.

These days I’m frequently briefing customers on collaboration and business productivity, and the subject of consumerisation – bring your own device – always comes up… often before the slide appears, and sometimes before the presentation. Take yesterday for example, someone commented on the four iPads brought in by customer attendees and joked that the owners should put them away. I disagreed – here we see the leading edge of consumerisation and we have to embrace it. And it always provokes an interesting and passionate conversation.

Every time I touch on the subject of consumerisation I mention the Forbes article ‘I Want my iPad’ which discusses the pros and cons, and concludes that compromise is required on both sides (users and IT)¬†and that generally¬†consumerisation is often well worth the effort. A year after it was written I’m still advising people to read it.

Back to the BBC article… the overall theme is that the idea of consumerisation has changed in the years since we first heard the term. It was quite a few years ago (five or six, maybe more) that I first heard of companies considering giving their employees an allowance to buy a computer rather than taking the company-allocated standard, and thus allowing employees to put some of their own money in to buy better kit. Playground elitism moving into the workplace. In reality, I can’t remember dealing with any customer who went down this route, although the BBC article states that Cisco have. Having said that, some of that compromise that Forbes state as important seems to be not quite there yet:

If they choose to use an Apple Mac, the company won’t provide IT support.

You have a choice, but make sure you make the right choice. This is a strange path to take, as you’d think that the desire to own a MacBook Pro would be one of the driving factors for funded consumerisation.

Now if you mention consumerisation, it’s more likely to be understood as bringing a ‘device’ into work and allowing it to be connected to the company network / infrastructure and allowing it to access certain services. Good Technology are gleefully rubbing their hands, as one of the solutions to the work / personal dilemma is ‘sandboxing’ the corporate data, allowing it to be wiped while the user’s personal stuff (Facebook, Twitter, contacts, Angry Birds, the complete works of ABBA) remains. I hear Good’s solution mentioned frequently.

But despite all of these consumerisation / bring yer own device conversations, the one thing I haven’t encountered (apart from that poorly-researched conversation last year) is the notion that devices will erode desktop computers or laptops. My impression is that tablets and phones are still seen as companion devices, not replacements. The only exception is Windows tablets which can be docked, and therefore can take advantage of a physical keyboard and mouse. Hand-held tablets and phones with on-screen keyboards are fine for e-mail and web browsing, but I can’t see them being used for serious number-crunching spreadsheet work or detailed document creation. Some may point at reports of sales of tablets outstripping computers, but there’s no evidence of one eroding the other. Do you know an iPad owner who doesn’t also own a computer?

As a final thought, I will agree with the BBC article on two points. The rise of mobile devices is driving a greater availability of business-ready apps and shaping how development teams think about presenting data and processes. And that leads to the second point, which is the potential for a business to become more agile and responsive because the business-critical data and insight is more readibly available to the mobile worker.