Home Tech? Work Tech? Increasingly, It's Just Tech

Microsoft this week will participate again in the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a curiously timed annual buzz-fest centered around, as the name suggests, consumer electronics. Microsoft's connection to such a show was hazy at best until fairly recently, but these days, with its Xboxes, Zunes, Media Center PCs, and other consumer-oriented technologies, Microsoft has as much a claim to living room technology as any other company, I guess.

Regardless of the trends that are birthed at CES each year, I've always been most fascinated by the back and forth that occurs between the IT world and the home. For example, I feel that the consumer market is now influencing business technology in ways that are fairly unprecedented; in fact, you might have to go back as far as people bringing Apple II computers to work in the early 1980s to find such a lopsided situation.

For example, Microsoft today is building technology that blocks USB storage devices into its server and client OSs, and it's doing so specifically because of the preponderance of almost-free USB sticks and the success of the iPod. These toys are useful and fun, but they can also be used to steal corporate data, easily and even by mistake. Michael Crichton would have a field day with the technology-is-evil themes presented here if he had just lived to write another book.

One other trend I'm fascinated by is the overwhelming success of portable computers compared with desktops. In fact, in a recent Microsoft meeting I can't otherwise elaborate on quite yet due to NDA reasons, I was told that, basically, only businesses are buying desktop computers now. At retail and online, consumers are overwhelming choosing portable computers: notebooks, Tablet PCs, Ultra-Mobile PCs (UMPCs), and that new darling of the industry, netbooks.

In fact, industry researchers at iSuppli announced a few weeks back that portable PC shipments edged over desktops for the first time overall in the third quarter of 2008. It was a close race: Portable PC shipments soared 40 percent to 38.6 million units, edging out desktop PC sales of 38.5 million units. But I'm pretty sure we've crossed the line and will never look back.

The question, of course, is: When (if ever) will you replace a fleet of business desktops with portable computers? The benefits are enormous assuming costs can be kept down, especially when you consider that many workers will simply continue working from home--answering email at the very least--and essentially work off of the clock on their own time. The very concept of 9 to 5 is one that is rapidly fading into a past of 8 track tapes and Atari 2600s. (Speaking of consumer electronics.)

I think the key to this change will be increased acceptance of portable computing at home and an expectation on the part of employees that they be given a similar level of "positional freedom" (as I think of it) with work. Another important change is the rush of low-cost netbooks, which offer all of the benefits of true PCs with none of the downsides of small form factor and incompatible smart phones. That Windows 7 is being made to run well on such low-end computers is a plus. Certainly, Windows Vista could never handle that feat.

So while 2009 promises to be at least as financially painful as 2008, I'm curious to see what kind of inroads portable computers will make in the coming year. I'm expecting a big change, both at home and in the workplace.

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