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Mobile Devices in the Enterprise: This Changes Everything—Streams of Thought

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As we near the end of the first quarter of 2011, an inescapable fact is upon us: The era of desktop computing, at least for media consumption, has passed.

The consumption experience has shifted rapidly to two extremes: on one hand, toward the TV screen; on the other hand, toward handheld devices.

What’s left is the traditional PC, which acts in a man-in-the-middle role. The PC isn’t dead; it’s just rapidly being replaced for consumption: We’ll still need desktop computers with their giant screens to edit complex videos, we’ll need workstations to compress the heavy algorithms for HD video encoding, and we’ll certainly need servers to deliver all the content.

In 2009, according to research firm IDC, smartphone shipments in 2010 outpaced PC shipments for the first time, with PC growth only progressing 3% for 4Q 2010 on shipments of 92 million units.

In other words, we’re in for a paradigm shift in delivery, the likes of which we haven’t seen since Real and QuickTime on the desktop began replacing dedicated broadcast hardware more than a decade ago.

Even in the enterprise, that bastion of desktop computing, there’s a trend toward mobility that rivals another enterprise-computing shift that occurred when enterprises upgraded from low-end business machines to more powerful desktops and laptops.

That wave of change was driven, in part, by employees’ at-home computing experience being much better than their at-work computing experience. Given the PC gaming wave, consumer computers in 1999–2000 had better graphics, more RAM, and larger hard drives than your typical run-of-the-mill office PC. After 2000, the enterprise computer caught up with the consumer computer.

Today, average employees have better personal smartphones than the ones they’re issued at work. By “better” I mean smartphones that allow media consumption, gaming, and social connectivity. An enterprise mobile device that can do anything more than email is still an anomaly.

Will there be growth in robust media consumption handheld devices in the enterprise like that in desktop computing from the 1999–2000 time frame? The short answer is yes, and the conversion is already well underway.

A number of enterprise IT attendees I spoke with at the RSA Conference in San Francisco in mid-February, as well as a few vendors I spoke with at Mobile World Congress in Spain, echoed the idea of a technology shift for the enterprise.

One of the more progressive attempts at this is a move from BYOD (bring your own device), in which an employee’s personal smartphone or tablet is tolerated for limited corporate functionality, toward a proactive allowance for computing choice.

The concept works in the form of a stipend for employees, acknowledging the fact that some employees—including those who work from home offices—tend to be more productive with the technology they choose (or are already familiar with) than with the enterprise-issued “one size fits all” device they receive in a more formal office setting.

One employee of a major consulting firm, who asked not to be named, said his company is seriously considering this approach.

“If we can give our employees a $500–$700 technology stipend,” he said, “to let them pick the smartphone or tablet they feel most comfortable using, it’s a win-win for both morale and productivity.”

In summary, the new consumer and employee platform of choice for media consumption, then, fits in a pocket. Voting with their feet, or dollars, the corporate and personal affinity for a particular device or platform may reshape the winners and losers within the streaming media industry.

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