September 2013

The Futility of The Single-Device Solution

The Futility of The Single-Device Solution

Maybe one day a single device will adapt to different use cases, but until then, embrace the power of having multiple devices

By Brian Katz

I’ve had the same conversation a number of times over the last few weeks: Business groups or IT groups have set a goal to move all their users to one device in the next 18 months. At one level, you can’t blame them: As tablets have started to overtake PC and laptop sales, most manufacturers are trying to push the fact that their device is the only one that your users will need. You have the Lenovo Twist/Yoga/insert name here, the Samsung device that is a Windows laptop until you turn it around and it becomes an Android tablet, and of course Microsoft with its Surface, which is a hybrid trying to be everything.

There’s a hitch to this approach: It’s very hard to be a Swiss Army knife when it comes to people and computing. All these devices are solutions in search of a problem that, even if it exists, isn’t the right one to solve. There are three aspects to this issue.

The first aspect is that the PC manufacturers are seeing their sales dissipate, as sales of iPads and, increasingly, Android tablets come on strong — so PC makers took a two-prong response to the issue. The first response was to create enterprise-ready tablets that no one wanted. They were too big, too heavy, and too flimsy, and they didn’t make sense except for specialized areas. The second response was to create some sort of hybrid device, either a Windows device that could be a tablet or a laptop or else a Frankenstein monster that could be an Android device or a Windows device depending on how it was used. The problem with these devices — apologies to Mel Brooks — is that their brain was taken from Abby Normal. They end up with too many compromises to be usable by the everyday person.

The second aspect of the problem is the difference between how IT and the business units think of computing. IT looks at it as a support issue. It must be cheaper and certainly much easier to support one device than to support two devices, especially as multiple operating systems are likely in the mix. Having one device should cut down on support calls and make it easy to replace hardware when there is a problem with it. Meanwhile, business management looks at it from an expense view and sees one device as being cheaper so that it falls into line with IT on support. A one-device approach also saves both business units and IT from having to develop or buy separate applications for different devices.

The third aspect of the problem is what should be the first thing considered — that is, the real issue at hand: What makes the most sense for the users? In the end, it’s your employees who do the work that makes you profitable (or not). Their goal is to be able to do their job — in the easiest way possible, when they need to do it, and where they need to do it.

It’s all about their becoming more flexible and agile, so they can work the way they want. That’s the promise of mobile in the first place! When mobile is done well, employees get the information and tools they need, when and where they need it, so they can be more productive and efficient.

No, they don’t want to carry around a lot of devices, each optimized for part of the job, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want more than one device. Yes, it is a pain to lug a laptop and a tablet around. But many already do so because the benefits outweigh that inconvenience.

This is why I believe in the next 18 months we still won’t be able to get to one device for all users. Some devices are better in some situations than others, so we’ll need multiple devices. Yes, it is technically possible to shoehorn your users into one device, whether it’s a Windows hybrid or a tablet that uses VDI to access Windows apps, but those are compromises that hinder the true enablement of your users.

I also don’t believe that a two-device approach has to be more expensive than a single-device approach. It of course depends on the devices you choose, but hybrid devices are extremely expensive when they are enterprise-ready, so the cost of a standard laptop and a tablet can in fact be much cheaper.

More tantalizing, though, is the savings in costs when you move to a mobile-first development approach. Going mobile-first means focusing on the user needs and simplifying your apps to meet those needs on whatever devices they are using. As you move from smartphone to tablet to PC, you may see the app gain more functionality. That’s because the total tool — the combination of app and device — are different, so the use case changes as you move among them. But that root simplification makes the tool easier and more efficient to work with, increasing productivity and decreasing wasted effort. That’s a real, long-term cost savings, well beyond the nominal cost of the devices and even support.