CIOs need to prepare for a future business computing model without the PC

First published on, January 2017. This one has turned out to be a bit wrong, given Covid…

In my work in the last few years I’ve been skirting between the worlds of digital and traditional IT. One of the things that I’m concluding is that, for the most part, IT isn’t anywhere near the trajectory of travel required for innovating the enterprise technology experience.

Sure, you might have your 2020 Vision (high fives all around for that pun). Yes, you might be embracing cloud computing, Big Data or machine learning. But in most organisations in which I’ve worked in the past two years, the Ptolemaic model of the IT universe orbits steadily around the PC.

We need to raise our sights. Whilst the PC will be around for some time to come, designing future operating models around the idea that a keyboard and mouse-driven computing device is the only “proper” form of computing will provide a foundation built on legacy.

Here is my thinking, in nine observations and causal factors:

1. The browser

Since the 1990s, the Browser has become the operating system. Whilst client-installed business applications are still around (putting aside the rise of mobile apps for the moment), most current enterprise computing tasks can be done in the browser, and, I’d wager, most bespoke software built in-house over the past decade and a half has been delivered to the browser.

Browser applications are great because they are relatively easy to maintain. That’s why the Internet has been so successful.

2. The Mac

The PC was never just about Windows. For the last 30 years there’s been the parallel computing universe of the Mac. In the dark inbetween-Jobs-days, Microsoft needed Apple as a counterweight (against accusations of monopoly) that in 1997 they invested $150m into the brink of bankruptcy Cupertino outfit.

The rest is, as they say, history. But in the Post-return-of-Jobs Apple the Mac went from “thing used by designers” to desirable consumer object. And that went into organisations at the most senior levels requiring many organisations to think about cross-platform support for some of their business systems. That, in turn, reinforced the value of the browser (although anyone developing for Apple and Windows browsers in the late 90s and 00s will have the scars to show how mutually incompatible things still were).

3. Mobile

Which in turn brings us to today’s primary platform, the smart phone. A world dominated by Apple and Google. And a platform that outside of work is now the one that we turn to the most. And the one that is more personal than any personal computer ever has been before.

Yet in businesses mobile is still an afterthought when it comes to enterprise computing. A limited subset of functionality of considered at all.

Just remember that startups these days will often start with mobile (iOS, then Android), then Web. Then stop. Meanwhile software in the office produces content that is next to unconsumable on a mobile screen (yes you, PDF). Because proper work produces documents that are designed to be printed.

4. SaaS

But of course that is changing. Software as a Service is now becoming mainstream, and by Software as a Service I mean the proper stuff with everything delivered to browser or mobile app. None of that software subscription with a bit of cloud storage that some vendors think will suffice.

5. Web 2.0/The Social Web

Because outside of work we now realise that collaboration doesn’t have to revolve around email and documents. We use WhatsApp, or Slack or Facebook or LinkedIn or a dozen other services to perform a series of complex collaborative tasks in ways that makes the office feel like the middle ages. And not only do we expect to be able to work in these new ways, we also expect that the information and processes with which we are interacting exist on whatever device (or in whatever other service) we are using.

6. APIs

And that is enabled by the consumer web’s whole-hearted embrace of APIs to reveal data and functionality outside of the constraints of just one user interface.

How many APIs has your business exposed internally to allow your staff to mash up the business services that are available? What’s your business’s internal equivalent of Zapier or IFTTT?

7. IoT

Because this isn’t saying that we are going from PC to mobile. It’s we’re going from PC to many things. From the PC to the Internet of Just About Bloody Everything.

Yes, yes. Security risks. Yes, I know, “not proper computing”. But if we’ve been complaining about the workplace not being as advanced technologically as the home for the past ten years, just imagine how big that gap is about to get.

8. New interaction patterns

Because you’ve got a strategy for Voice integration across your application estate, haven’t you? And then one for gesture-based computing. Or Augmented Reality. Or whatever will come next. It’s unlikely to just be the mouse and QWERTY keyboard, long-lasting as those two devices have been.

9. Nothing lasts forever

Because, ultimately, nothing lasts forever. Not the Fax Machine. Not the Mouse. Not the Smartphone.

Not the PC.

It won’t disappear overnight. It will be a useful device for some tasks for many years to come. But defining future business computing around a UI paradigm developed in the 1960s isn’t just risky. It’s wrong.

It’s time to think long and hard about #noPC.

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