IT is on the cusp of a technological transition. As cloud evolves into a mainstream technology, and big data and consumerisation become more pressing concerns, enterprise networks are developing into a mishmash of the old and new.
Hulking, beige desktop units still sit in the corner, creaking along with Windows XP while attempting to communicate with user-owned iOS 6 phones through irregular Wi-Fi set-ups. Meetings are filled with users tapping notes on glass-screened tablets, while manual projectors beam low-resolution PowerPoint ’97 slides into the room from a PC networked to the wall by an ISDN cable. An analogue conference telephone remains tethered not to this available IP-based technology, but to a BT phone line from the 1950s.
It can’t last. The endpoint technology of today is reaching a stage where it can no longer support the possibilities the future has to offer. But as change stands poised to overhaul the enterprise, exactly what form will it take, and who will provide it?
“We’re looking at a Captain Kirk world filled with screens,” says technology futurologist and ex-BT CTO Peter Cochrane. “Mobile devices will be in the form of wearable elements - like jewellery - and any screen you approach will interface with it.”
In this future, of perhaps the ultimate “dumb terminal” endpoint, Cochrane believes Microsoft will “die and disappear in the next few years”, as the app-based model pursued by Apple and aped by the Android camp makes ubiquitous single software solutions obsolete. The present business IT landscape, where a select few vendors dominate, will become nothing more than “a dream for the dark side of the force,” Cochrane believes.
In Cochrane’s future, Clouds will be created – and dissolved – on the fly.
“There is no convergence. What we see is divergence,” says Cochrane. “There has never been an iota of convergence in the IT industry; apps are appearing individually to achieve separate functions.”
Within 25 years, Cochrane believes, wearable technology will have penetrated the skin - “subsumed into the human body in some form or another. The big question will become, would you like to be enhanced? That’s what the future is about. Would you like to have this stuff embedded?”
Meanwhile, he believes, mass data will be routinely stored to the DNA of dead biological organisms.
If that’s truly our far-flung cybernetic future, we have some way to go before we get there. And while managing director of managed cloud service firm NaviSite, Sean McAvan, agrees with some of Cochrane’s predictions, his overriding belief is that progress will, for the next few years at least, prove slow and steady.
“[Though] we’re in a transition phase, most people have investments in fixed IT assets like server farms or even desktops,” says McAvan. “It’s sensible to make the most of those assets you’ve already invested in.
“However,” he admits, “it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than service providers and really big organisations making those kind of investments in the future.”
McAvan believes the next big development in endpoint IT will see the increasing commoditisation of compute power, with that power piped almost exclusively to mobile devices.
“If you look at chip manufacturers like Intel,” says McAvan, “they’re more focused on increasing speed and reducing power consumption, extending battery life, increasing mobility. End-users are more focused on flexibility and mobility.”
Enterprise data, believes McAvan, will be crunched in huge servers, and supplied as virtual desktop images via the cloud.
“Not on desktop machines, though, but laptops, phones, tablets. I think one end of the consumer scale will be cheap devices, especially in population demographics like developing nations, or younger people, and then you’ll have the kind of markets where Apple dominates right now - the more designer devices.”
And it’s these “designer” devices – and Apple devices in particular – that will, according to McAvan, come to dominate the enterprise, despite their consumer-oriented origins.
“I’m not sure that the device manufacturers, besides RIM, really cater for the enterprise, and I’m not sure they will,” says McAvan. “I use an iPhone – which I don’t think was ever designed to be a corporate mail vehicle – and increasingly many of my co-workers do as well. So I think it’s more that enterprise IT will have to adapt to the devices that users have and want, rather than that devices will adapt to the enterprise.”