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With 'bring your own,' a PC isn't just another device

commentary PCs have complexities that smartphones and tablets don't. Therefore, lumping all these together for the purposes of "bring your own device" discussions doesn't make sense.

Much has been written about security and other headaches that employee-owned devices can cause for IT departments. Much of this hand-wringing is arguably overblown given all the products, technologies, and established best practices available to mitigate risk. Nonetheless, dealing with a wide variety of client hardware over which they have little control requires at least some level of planning and work for IT professionals.

The justification for this effort? Sometimes it's framed with productivity metrics. But, really, the usual justification is that it's happening with or without IT's acquiescence and participation. The storyline then continues on about how companies that don't get BYOD, social media, and other hot trends won't be able to hire anyone under a certain age.

But a few stories have popped up recently questioning whether the "bring your own device" movement is actually desirable. Not from the perspective of a reluctant IT department, but from the point of view of employees.

For example, over at Computerworld, Steven Vaughan-Nichols writes:

BYOD is a slippery slope. It started because we loved our tech toys and wanted to use them for work. That was great for executives who could afford to buy the latest and greatest iPad every time Apple released one. But when BYOD becomes a requirement, it's a pain for those in the upper salary brackets and a de facto cut in pay for those who don't make the big bucks.

Amy Cheah, market analyst for Infrastructure at IDC in Australia and New Zealand, told David Needle in March that "IDC's Next Generation Workspace Ecosystem research has found that only 2 out of 10 employees want to use their own device for work and for personal use, which means corporate devices are still desired by the majority."

How does one reconcile the enthusiasm for BYOD in some circles with the distaste in others?

First, it's a given that different people will have different preferences. Employees span a wide range of personal preferences, salary levels, job descriptions, and technical competence. That some prefer to just be given the tools they need to do their job and have them fixed or replaced if they stop working is hardly surprising. Company policies also differ. Some IT departments may indeed see BYOD as a means to cut out an existing cost, others as a way to give the employees who want it more flexibility.

However, I also suspect that the way we use the BYOD term today blurs an important distinction. Whatever the future may bring, in the here and now there are important differences between smartphones and tablets on the one hand and PCs on the other.

As far as smartphones are concerned, any debate over whether BYOD will or should happen is long past. People mostly buy their own phones and generally use the same one for both personal and company use. One need only look at the financial statements of BlackBerry-maker RIM to chart the decline of dedicated enterprise-optimized smartphones. The only real question is to what degree a company subsidizes monthly carrier charges.

Tablets shouldn't cause much debate either. In their current form, tablets are primarily an adjunct to a PC that can make reading, Web surfing, game playing, and other types of media consumption more natural and comfortable. Time will tell whether tablets and PCs reconverge in the coming years, but in their current form, tablets can't take the place of a PC for general business use. (Unless they're configured for some dedicated task.) Thus, though many employees do indeed want to connect their tablets to corporate e-mail and networks, they're doing so as additional devices--not substitutes for something currently supplied by an employer.

Smartphones and tablets also have in common that they can be thought of as cloud clients. They don't store much data. They synchronize to online backups (or a PC). They're pretty simple to use insofar as they mostly work or they don't work.

PCs are different.

They can store a lot of files and other data, which will be all mixed together unless special care is taken to isolate personal files from employer files. A variety of products that use virtual machines and other technologies can provide isolation within a single PC for different types of use. However, none of these products has gone mainstream and, for many users, such approaches seem too intrusive for a personal system. Thus, a PC used for work is arguably not truly personal any longer if a company has, for example, some legal reason to examine stored files.

With more and more applications sporting Web interfaces rather than requiring dedicated client software that has to be installed on individual PCs, it certainly becomes more practical for employees to use their own PCs for company work. And for some, that will be their preference whether because they want a particular type of laptop or simply because what they do personally and what they do professionally is so mixed together anyway. This requires following proper security practices, backup procedures, and being comfortable doing your own tech support. But it can be a reasonable trade-off, all the more so if the company is willing to provide some sort of stipend in lieu of supplying a PC.

However, I'm skeptical that it makes sense in most cases to have an all-encompassing BYOPC program. Many people still find PCs (and, yes, I include Macs) to be sometimes confounding and frustrating pieces of gear that develop subtle and hard-to-debug problems. The same people may have difficulty following IT security policies. Ultimately, there are still enough complexities with PCs that it's just not practical for IT to get completely away from supporting clients in most environments.