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Is the iPad Changing the IT-User Relationship?

The role of the OS is changing, and changing the role of IT with it.

When I drive into the Toyota dealership, the mechanic greets my truck with an iPad. Visiting the doctor's office, I find another tablet in the physician's hands. Arriving at a client meeting, I see office workers tapping at the glass surfaces of other iPads.

Retail, medical, traditional office -- the world has embraced the iPad and its tablet-computing contemporaries faster than any technology in recent memory. With the device appearing in workplaces so fast that many IT shops haven't come to terms with its presence, one wonders if the overnight ubiquity of the iPad signals an impending sea change in IT's relationship with its users.

At issue seems to be the OS itself, or more specifically the role the OS plays in our social contract. For a long time, IT has placed a heavy focus on managing that OS -- locking it down, controlling it, limiting its functionality, maintaining its updates and configurations. Those of us in IT have seen these and other desktop activities as primary responsibilities since the beginning of client/server computing.

Yet with our single-minded focus on the OS, many IT pros have forgotten the reason why the OS exists in the first place. To the users we serve, the OS represents little more than a container for applications and data. To them, that's all it ever was. It exists solely to facilitate the functions necessary for driving business, and perhaps a little gaming on the side. Everything else is irrelevant, dark magic performed by a misunderstood IT organization behind closed doors.

Opening Gateways
Then, one day, tablet computing suddenly became wildly popular. With it came the notion of "apps" and "markets," and a sense of freedom made real by their easy installation and use. Touch the screen in three places, enter a password, and the app that's important becomes yours.

For our users, the iPad isn't another OS. It's a portable gateway to the things they find important, whether that's nearby restaurants, irritated flying animals or Web front-ends to corporate intranet applications.

For many IT professionals, this realization is becoming the elephant in the room. Our past practices may have been necessarily draconian out of a desire for security, and the urge to protect users from themselves and the world around them. That heavy-handed approach was also driven by the tools and frameworks at our disposal for managing desktop assets. Configuration management brought a perception of control. Change management added process. Security management limited actions to those approved. Each new practice intending to help further formalize the relationship by restricting user freedoms.

Our users' rapid embrace of the tablet represents an opportunity for IT to mature. These devices may finally force us to recognize that applications and data -- and indeed our users themselves -- come first. The people who invent buzzwords have different names for this: user-centric computing, even the consumerization of IT.

Brave New World
Notwithstanding what you call it, the ramifications to our model of operations are enormous. The user of the very near future expects ubiquitous access to applications and data -- irrespective of network location -- tuned for available bandwidth and factored for multiple devices, along with the ability to simultaneously access the other bits that make computing personal.

Particularly inspiring is that this new relationship is entirely possible. We now possess the tools to inexpensively construct it while still meeting our needs for security. With trivial effort, virtual desktops, presented applications, always-on VPNs, cloud services and ever-increasing bandwidth can combine to facilitate users' needs.

Some of us will fight this movement, inventing reasons to maintain the status quo. Others will find or create technologies and practices that overcome the opposition. Many have already done the latter. Will you?

About the Author

Greg Shields is a senior partner and principal technologist with Concentrated Technology. He also serves as a contributing editor and columnist for TechNet Magazine and Redmond magazine, and is a highly sought-after and top-ranked speaker for live and recorded events. Greg can be found at numerous IT conferences such as TechEd, MMS and VMworld, among others, and has served as conference chair for 1105 Media’s TechMentor Conference since 2005. Greg has been a multiple recipient of both the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional and VMware vExpert award.

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