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Netbooks are on the rise as business computing devices. In a recent InformationWeek Analytics survey of 1,414 IT pros, 9% say they're already using netbooks extensively and 27% have them in limited use. That same survey shows that in two years, 19% expect extensive use while 53% see at least limited use of netbooks. If you don't have a policy for using these devices, now would be a good time to create one.
These figures are sobering. We can no longer count on end users having a single operating system, a predictable screen size and security posture, or even a single-processor architecture. But it's also an exciting prospect. Users who otherwise would leave a bulky laptop behind or not wait for it to boot up while with a customer may be much more likely to use customer-facing apps while actually facing customers. GPS and 3G/4G wireless network performance open an entirely new realm of application possibilities.
Those benefits, while real, can be hard to value. What's not hard to value is the price of proliferating device types and their associated management. The complications and cost of managing a substantially wider portfolio of devices isn't something that excites cash- and staff-strapped CIOs.
A few years ago, I wrote a column encouraging IT leaders to consider giving their end users more say in choosing their computing devices. At that time, one reader was annoyed enough at the suggestion to ask whether I'd been dropped on my head as a child. Apparently, giving end users that sort of choice wasn't something many IT organizations were willing to do.
Flash forward four years, and the landscape has changed. New employees have expectations about the devices they'll be using (they often expect more than one), and if they don't like what you provide, they may simply choose not to use it. At the other end, executives can become enamored of devices not supported by IT--anyone been arm-twisted into supporting a few iPhones? Just how sharp of a line you draw has a lot to do with the business you're in. Those in highly regulated industries will see the problem differently from those dealing with highly creative, self-centered 20-somethings.
To the extent that you can, offer some choice, but choices still need to be limited to what IT can support. Letting users stop by the local big-box store and grab what appeals to them is still a bad idea. Best Buy will honor the vendor warranty, but it also will take its sweet time in doing so. IT still has the responsibility to make sure that end-user devices can be repaired quickly or that loaner devices are available. At least in this regard, smartphones that necessitate a contract have an advantage over laptops and netbooks. Take your BlackBerry with a corporate service contract into a Verizon store and complain about a malfunctioning trackball, and you'll have it fixed in minutes; by comparison, the Geek Squad at Best Buy will still be trying to sell you half a dozen other "services" you don't need before they'll take your laptop for a month.
Columnists like to solve such problems with last-paragraph proclamations. Unfortunately in this instance, there's no obvious right answer other than to say that the device policy you laid down a few years ago won't do anymore. Involve your end users in determining the new policy, and get them to help you explain it as you roll it out. Better to hang together than to hang alone.
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