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Megatrend: Pocket Workplaces

Traditional office workplaces are on the verge of extinction. A new kind of mobile device is about to make them obsolete.

This is a part of a new series about global megatrends. Please read the introductory post.

Once upon a time, white collar workers had clearly defined workplaces. Every morning they came to their offices, sat at their desks, unlocked cabinets, fired up a PC and started their day. Except for larger devices like coffee machines, printers and fax machines, the essential office work tools belonged to exactly one person: PCs, monitors, keyboards, desks, chairs, and coffee mugs. Office space was like a home away from home: familiar, cozy, quiet, and always in the same spot. Work began with arrival at the office, and leaving the personal work space was equivalent to closing time.

That is about to change forever.

RATIONALE

Miniaturization has been a disrupting development for decades. Its impact was most apparent in electronics and personal computer devices. Driven by Moore’s law, the computing power of a modern smartphone is staggering, especially when compared to older devices. The current iPhone 5s is, by the way, 40 times faster than the first iPhone model designed just a few years ago. The iPhone 5s CPU uses a 64- bit Apple A7 processor that, considering the multi-core design, delivers a computing power equivalent to 20,000 MIPS*.

This makes an iPhone around 250 times faster than the legendary supercomputer Cray-1 (it also used a 64-bit processor architecture) that was a cutting-edge machine just thirty years ago. While an iPhone fits in a pocket, Cray-1 required a whole warehouse filled with giant computer racks and cumbersome magnetic tape memory units.

In addition to the miniaturization progress, other attributes of modern computing devices have made staggering improvements. For example, device connectivity has become convenient and prevalent. Data-transmission efficiency has increased dramatically, with the ability of modern protocols to transfer gigabytes of information over short distances in just a second. The entire commercial content of the internet in 1995 (estimated to be about 30 GB) could be transferred from one device to another in under one minute.

Because of the increasing power and connectivity of pocket devices, many cumbersome and notoriously outdated office computers are being replaced by mobiles. The “BYOD” (bring your own device) trend has become popular in many workplaces. Often, it is now much more convenient to work on a modern tablet than on a traditional PC-keyboard-display trio.

Data security is another important aspect of mobile devices. In past few years, businesses have increasingly moved their data to the “cloud,” thus becoming dependent on a reliable remote connection to reach their actual computing power and actionable data. However, the recent mass-surveillance scandals have revealed an important drawback of the “cloud computing” approach: data stored in cloud data centers turns out to be vulnerable and notoriously insecure.

At the same time, despite some security holes, mobile devices can be made exceptionally secure when certain fundamental rules are followed. Mobiles are now capable of storing huge amounts of data on their own internal memory chips. This data can be quickly and conveniently synchronized through shared data storage. Nearly everything that defines traditional workplace equipment – accessibility, efficiency, flexibility, security, and functionality – now easily fits in a pocket.

Still, despite the enormous capability of modern mobile devices, ever more computing power is needed for even more advanced work. Mobile devices cannot offer very large displays, energy-hungry fast graphics processors, or complex network connectivity. In this case, however, the pocket workplace can be extended easily to become a powerful office workstation by simply docking the device to its “mother ship.” At the risk of a specific setup quickly becoming an outdated design, the extendable office of the future workplace might look like this:

In such setup, the single mobile device is the source of information, secure data storage, and basic computing power. Plugging it into a docking station provides a faster CPU/GPU and more RAM, as well as a fast communication interface. Using standardized setups of that kind, everyone can work at any desk as long as the docking interface remains compatible.

The old dream of a swappable workplace finally becomes a tangible reality.

CONSEQUENCES

Individuals:

  • Mobile devices will become the predominant user interface for any computer-based activity. Knowing how to use such a mobile device will become a core skill.
  • Mobile devices will replace both private and business identification cards. They will do nearly everything: phone calls, data processing, office software functionality, expert applications etc. – everything will potentially run on the mobile device.
  • Due to its manifold significance, losing a mobile device will be regarded as one of the worst personal catastrophes imaginable.
  • It is likely that accepting security-centric bodily implants and other intrusive security measures will be a prerequisite to getting hired.
  • The differentiation between the professional and private life will become increasingly blurry. This will include working at unusual times of day.
  • It will be easier to work from home. On the other hand, corporate security, labor laws, and other legislative regulations will likely be imposed to guide how a home workplace is established.

Businesses:

  • The cost of a workplace will fall and shared workplaces will become standard.
  • Telecommuting work will become more popular; governments looking to increase fertility rates and gender equality may even impose laws establishing a home-work quota for each company.
  • Setting up geographically distributed teams will become easier and cheaper.
  • Security management as well as remote management of mobile devices will become indispensable for any large organization.
  • Important corporate data will be stored in “private clouds.”
  • Offering highly secure connection and a bullet-proof point-to-point security system will become a top strategic priority.
  • A modular design for mobile devices will become prevalent.
  • With increasingly available remote work opportunities, real estate prices in cities will be put under pressure, while more-remote homes will become more desirable.
  • Pocket workplaces will accelerate the trend of using more freelance work. Workplaces will be “rented” to third parties just for the duration of an assignment. That will allow a thorough integration of external experts in temporary project teams.

CONCLUSIONS

While it appears inevitable, pocket workplaces are is still in their infancy. New hardware design and interface standards need to be established to assure effective IT infrastructure integration. Also, current operating systems still need a lot of improvement. Leading OS like Android and iOS are not yet sufficiently capable of replacing a traditional office PC. Microsoft’s Windows Phone is likely to benefit from this trend.

Pocket workplaces are about to ignite fundamental changes in the work world. Not only we will see another explosion of a global interconnectivity, but new legislatures, new lifestyles, and different business models also will emerge. Even real estate prices will be affected in a surprising way. At any rate, mobile pocket devices will be a game changer on many levels. It remains to be seen if the benefits will outweigh the disadvantages.

* I am aware of the fact that MIPS (million operations per second) is a controversial way of measuring computing performance. Still, it gives us an idea of the magnitude of the increased computing speed over past decades.

 


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About the Author

Roman MildnerRoman Mildner, Certified Project Manager (PMP) and member of the United Mentors Network (UMN), has worked in the IT industry since 1992 and an independent consultant and project manager since 1998. His professional offering includes IT strategy consulting, project management and process improvement. For more details, please visit his UMN page.

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