Embracing a More Heterogeneous IT Future

It's been a tough decade for IT. We've seen the rise of important consumer technologies—iPods, smartphones, and then tablet devices—which have leaked into the workplace in a viral way not unlike the adoption of early PCs. Although this mania was initially resisted (anyone remember who poured Krazy Glue in the USB ports?), IT finally gave up the fight, with even governmental institutions glumly embracing the so-called consumerization of IT. Today, iPhones, iPads, and other iWhatsits are everywhere, not just in homes but in boardrooms around the world.

Well, I've got bad news for you. This isn't a fad. What you're seeing is an outright revolution and a peek, I think, at a far more heterogeneous technology future. Your ability to roll with these changes, and embrace rather than fight the widening of end-user technology, could very well determine whether you're even necessary in the future, let alone successful.

Even the PC world is under attack, although worldwide market share figures suggest otherwise. Apple claims almost 60 million active Mac users—a far cry from the 1 to 1.2 billion active PC users, sure. But dig a bit deeper and you'll see some interesting trends. Macs are particularly successful in richer nations, like ours, and with younger, more active people who are currently in school and just entering the workforce. You can no longer assume a Windows/Office background as a minimum these days, and it's more common for college students to use services such as Gmail and Google than traditional Microsoft software.

PCs, too, are diverging. Apple and its competitors could sell about 40 million iPads and other tablets this year, with sales growing almost exponentially in the coming years. Microsoft and others contend that these devices will eventually merge with PCs, functionally—a view I happen to agree with, creating not a "post-PC" world but rather a "PC plus" era. But whatever you call it, and however PCs and iPads merge from a functional standpoint, what remains on the other end is more choice in form factors and underlying OSs. The PC market of 2015 isn't going to be like that of 1995, dominated by a single player. There are going to be more choices.

If you can't see this yet, consider two related markets: web browsers and smartphones.

First, web browsers. Today, Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) is barely clinging to 50 percent usage share after controlling over 90 percent of the market a decade ago, and its downward trend continues unabated month after month. Assuming Mozilla Firefox doesn't drop off the face of the earth (which is actually a possibility), we could end up with a roughly even three-way race that includes IE, Firefox, and Google Chrome, the latter of which is racing up the charts month-over-month.

The fact that this is happening at a time when Microsoft is selling 20 million copies of Windows 7 each and every month is somewhat incredible. IE retains a pretty decent percentage of Windows 7 users, specifically: IE 9.0 accounts for 22 percent of all Windows 7 PCs, according to Microsoft—which sounds great. But the latest Chrome version now accounts for 18 percent of all Windows 7 PCs, and the newest Firefox release is almost as big too. Here, you see the three-way race I expect to see elsewhere in technology most clearly today. These products are all widely used and technologically competitive. There is no clear winner.

Ditto for smartphones. Today, Google's Android appears to be running away with the market (much as Windows-based PCs did back in the early 1990s), with Android controlling about 43 percent of total smartphone sales, almost double number-two Apple's take. But Apple's sole smartphone entry, the iPhone, is by far the best-selling smartphone model, and as any Apple fan worth his white car sticker can tell you, Apple makes a lot more money per iPhone than any Android maker. In fact, Apple out-earns most Android device makers combined.

In today's smartphone market, there's Android and iPhone and then there's everyone else. We're in a time of transition, so it's not completely clear where the remainder is going to fall, but Windows Phone is the safe bet, and my choice, for the third-place finish, with systems such as Nokia Symbian and RIM BlackBerry dropping off in usage at alarming rates. If IDC and Gartner are to be believed, we'll have another three-way race in the handset market by 2015, with Android, iPhone, and Windows Phone splitting up most of the sales.

For consumers, this kind of change is exciting, but for IT, it's just scary. But if you accept that this change is both inevitable and, in fact, in full swing right now, it's perhaps healthier to embrace these unfamiliar change agents and best determine how, when, and where they can be integrated into your environments. Windows and the PC aren't going away, and neither is Microsoft. In fact, I expect the software giant to play a major role in all general-purpose computing markets of the future.

But the world is changing. And if you want to be successful in this new world, being the guy who always says no isn't the way to make that happen.

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