Futuristic office computer display

8 reasons agency IT will change course in 2013

Today, so many changes are afoot in the way client machines interact with government servers that it's nearly impossible to spotlight the main trend — one that would dictate how personal computers will be used and supported across an enterprise. But even with this uncertainty looming, one thing is certain: for many government agencies, 2013 will be a year of reckoning when it comes to computers used by their employees.

The PC as we know it is breaking apart – and targeting different user bases. That means that interacting with a client machine will soon mean different things to different types of employees. These changes have been underway for a while, but several things will intersect in 2013 to force public-sector agencies to make some clear choices.

Let's take a look at eight catalysts, followed by the potential choices for government end-user devices.

1. The end of Windows XP and Office 2003. Across all industries Windows XP penetration has dropped to just 25 percent of the PCs in use today. But at government sites, XP is still the most common operating system in use.  As many government IT managers know, most Microsoft products have three different phases. The first is the product's regular support phase, when it is considered an active product. This phase includes ongoing updates and support, security fixes, and sometimes new features. In the second phase, the product is no longer offered as an active product, but extended support is still available. This phase may include security updates, but most other changes require paid support or special programming. The third phase is retirement, which is when even extended support is no longer available. Windows XP and Office 2003 have been in phase two — the extended support  — for some time. The productsmove into full retirement in April 2014. Lacking future security updates, government sites will be forced to make plans during 2013 to leave their Windows XP machines behind.
2. The (very slow) rise of Windows 8. We don't expect to see a huge jump in Windows 8 penetration across the government in 2013. As Windows XP fades away, it's likely that some government sites will only make a slow and very conservative jump to Windows 7, much less Windows 8. But Windows 8 is an enticing option because it can run not only on PCs but also on select tablets and convertible devices (ones that can be used with or without a keyboard). Microsoft's own Surface tablet is one example, but other devices also can be used. It's also easy for organizations to offer Windows 8 as a virtual desktop, capable of loading from a server and being displayed on many other types of devices. As people start planning for an eventual migration to Windows 8, they often start to realize how many other client choices are now available to them. For those who have to run their applications on an older Windows OS, they might find themselves investigating programs such as VMware ThinApp or a Citrix Metaframe server. These can support legacy applications within the cloud and virtually fool them into running independently on select client machines.

3. App stores. Many people first became familiar with app stores through their smart phones. Such stores take a different approach to how software is distributed and updated. The interaction for loading the software is initiated by the end user. Once the software is installed, patches and updates can be set as automatic, or the end user can be notified that an update is available for download and installation. This changes the traditional paradigm for software, where central IT handles installations and updates. Government organizations can set up their own app stores, which offer pre-approved applications. It's a way to get end-users onto a common set of software, while allowing them to tap into what's needed while managing their own installations. Plus, if offers a way to offer software support for tablets and other devices beyond regular PCs.

4. Tablets and smart phones. Today, many people carry one or both of these devices. A few government organizations offer employees a choice to "bring your own device," but in reality, many only allow them to connect to a guest network — the same one that outsiders might be allowed to connect to while in the building. Yet as more organizations set up virtual private networks (VPNs) capable of allowing private devices to connect both internally and externally to enterprise networks, tablets and smart phones will become more a part of the government landscape. Tablets could become the computer of choice for employees who do inspections in the field, or who mostly fill out forms while meeting with clients. We all know these devices are out there, but what makes them a growing alternative to the PC is their ability to support keyboards when needed while still allowing touch-screen operations, and their ability to plug into monitors and other devices, to extend their functionality to near-PC levels of productivity.

5. iPads and iPhones. Yes, these devices technically belong with the group above. But a separate conversation is needed when talking about Apple products. Since they have a different OS, it can be more difficult to enforce some types of use compliance for end users. For example, IT organizations can't always require a pre-set “image” of configured apps with pre-installed data. But Apple products are relentless in their growth and their user base can be very loyal. Thus, Apple has to be part of the conversation when talking about choices beyond traditional PCs. Even the Defense Department is working to make iPhones a choice for end users.

6. Virtual desktops. IT support organizations are being called upon to sustain a growing number of devices, including smart phones and tablet computers. Rather than purchasing dedicated client-side applications for each device, some groups are choosing virtual PC solutions, giving everyone the same view and user experience, no matter which device they are using. Meanwhile, many agencies also are exploring offering software-as-a-service (SaaS) and increasing their participation in cloud computing. Both of these trends provide a conduit for an enterprise-wide thin-client environment. Thus an agency's new PC may actually be a virtual PC that can be loaded across many devices, as needed. There also are solutions from companies like NComputing which allow multiple employees to share one centrally located computer. Each sees their own workspace.

7. Desk phones as computers. Take a tip from high-volume call centers. Many employees don't need both a PC and a phone on their desk. As voice over IP systems have proliferated, so have devices capable of offering many computer functions within a desktop telephone. On the flip side, VOIP functions can be integrated into PCs. Desk phones can be eliminated and phones can be answered via headsets attached to computers. Either way, as these two desktop devices merge, the look and feel of the desk phone is starting to change. And for simplified tasks, such as routing helpdesk tickets or responding to information requests with prepackaged responses, only a phone with a tablet-like touch screen may be needed.

8. Specialized heads-up systems. Only a few will need these types of solutions. The military, along with a few types of maintenance crews, have for years had special wearable systems that can be viewed through head-mounted displays. But these systems have been expensive and bulky and often didn't include robust networking capability. But with better network connections available — and with solutions such as Google Goggles on the horizon — the PC for some people may very well be a device worn on one's belt, and viewed through special glasses.

No matter which direction your organization chooses, 2013 is very likely to be a tipping-point year, where important decisions will be made about the types of client machines your agency will use. It's likely that multiple new client devices will become part of your computing landscape, and that's fine. But just be sure to play an active role in these choices. The migration to new devices will happen whether most organizations like it or not, so it's best to actively investigate the alternatives and make informed choices.


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