What will be your primary computing devices over the next three to five years?

The status quo is to outfit the organization with the next generation of desktops or laptops and the latest version of Microsoft Windows or perhaps a Windows Mobile OS. Every year, a larger percentage of user computing devices depreciate and are replaced with one of a few selected system configurations, depending on the organization's financial and support model. Finance divisions will always debate with senior management about the depreciation term, which can force IT support to shorten the duration between upgrades for devices in use across an enterprise.

But all that is changing thanks to three computing technologies that are maturing fast:  tablets, virtual desktops and security software.

Each can open up several new options in outfitting the organization to do work faster, better and with fewer costs. In addition, changes in application architectures, new cloud computing options, and improvements in mobile platforms will also change the requirements and needs around user computing devices.

  • Virtual desktops have already achieved a state of maturity, but are still not widely deployed. They are particularly effective for teams that have common application needs and that don't require large demands on computing resources.
  • Enhancements in security software make it more viable for the CIO to secure personal computing devices. Securing these devices can be a lower cost option to outfit contracting resources and other variable staffing. It is also an appealing option to attract younger talent that have been accustomed to selecting their own devices and are asking organizations, "how come I can't connect my home Mac to the network?"
  • Also, consider a fourth factor, which I call an important outlier : power users. These are key staff who are running BIM software, doing takeoffs, performing data analytics, developing software, and driving technology use and innovation in building design and construction. They all need higher end computing. This is an key consideration because, as the technology improves and prices drop for tablets and virtual environments, they will become viable considerations for power users.

So where to start in strategic thinking? Technologists tend to look at technology first and dive into questions like iPad or Android (tablets), Citrix or VMWare (virtual desktops), RSA or Cisco (security) later. I think this is the wrong starting point. CIOs first need a better understanding of their users and what applications they use, which ones are critical and which are supplementary. It's an ideal time to develop an application asset database, segment users based on usage patterns and then catalog platform requirements on the more critical applications.

From there, I suggest CIOs perform some forecasting. If you have five BIM users today, how many will you likely have in three years? Does your ERP vendor have a tablet application and if not, where does it fall in their product roadmap? Are there user segments that can easily run their most critical applications on a virtual desktop?

For CIOs, the question should not be  "what devices?" Instead, ask yourself  "when, with what, and how" does my team work smarter? The technologies and cost structures will change over the next several years, so this will be a question that should be explored yearly. A strong asset management system and recurring analysis of applications and devices is needed to perform these decisions and help your organization optimize investments into new devices and application. 

Isaac Sacolick, @NYIKE, is the vice-president of technology and chief information officer of McGraw-Hill Construction.