I hope BYOD 2.0 goes better than BYOD 1.0 did

BYOD is “bring your own device.” It’s the hot new trend in IT, except it’s nothing new. But it was bound to happen, I guess. Companies are tired of buying computer equipment, so they want employees to provide it. And counterculture, nonconformist workers are (I guess) tired of using boring corporate computer equipment. (And here I am, a strong advocate of buying off-lease corporate computers for home use.)

So, since companies don’t want to buy computers, and employees don’t want to use company computers, what’s the problem?

How’s about I tell you a story?
I came up in the IT trenches starting in 1995. My first non-restaurant, non-retail job was scrapping IBM PS/2s and replacing them with IBM PC 330s and 350s. After a couple of months, my boss was impressed and he started using me as a desktop support technician. A few people decided they didn’t like IBM, so they bought other machines. One day my boss thrust a Gateway 2000 machine at me. He’d been trying for months to get it on the network, and figured he’d put a fresh set of eyes on it. Fresh off the task of putting a couple hundred IBMs on the network, I ought to be able to do it, right? Wrong. That Gateway hated me just as much as it hated him, and it hated our network.

That Gateway was the worst example, but we had a number of people who decided they liked Dell laptops better than IBM Thinkpads. Sometimes we could get the Dells to play, and sometimes we couldn’t. Thinkpads cost more, but they always worked.

By 1998, I was back in St. Louis, working at my second job. My first week, our most experienced desktop support technician warned me that a lot of departments had a habit of just buying whatever was on sale at Best Buy, bringing it in, and telling us to make it work. Sometimes it took a week or three to get the machine on the network, and when something broke, it routinely took us a few days to fix even fairly simple problems because we were always dealing with unfamiliar hardware, unfamiliar vendors, unfamiliar everything.

When I arrived, there was a nascent push to standardize. The employer chose Micron. Micron doesn’t make PCs anymore, but in the late 1990s, they had a line of very predictable PCs built with off-the-shelf components of reasonable quality. The machines were very bland, but easy to work on.

My boss and I noticed very quickly how much easier it was to work on these boring beige Micron boxes, and we spoke up to anyone who would listen. It took a couple of years to get the last of the nonconformist consumer PCs off the network, but once we did, reliability and productivity soared. There were no surprises with those Micron boxes, so it was very unusual for a problem to take more than 30 minutes to fix. In the unusual event of a component failing outright, we just kept spare parts on the shelf so we could get the machine back up and running, and we’d advise Micron of what we did, and they’d send us replacement parts.

We easily saved tens of thousands of dollars per year in support costs. Departments that had run in the red for their entire existence started running in the green. Then the dot-com bust hit and we had other problems.

So if you’re under the age of, say, 32, and you’ve wondered why companies always put the same computer on everyone’s desk, that’s why. Buy one big batch of identical machines, and the support costs over that batch’s lifespan will be much lower than the cost of supporting desktop anarchy.

But it’ll be different now, right? Computers are better now, right? And tablets and phones are completely different, right?

Actually, tablets and phones are completely different. Different from computers and different from each other. One of my best friends does software development on Android, and every Android device is a little bit different. His software doesn’t always work on every device. It’s like the early days of Windows 3.1 all over again.

And then there’s the issue of security. If people are taking their devices home, connecting to every network everywhere they go, do you really want that machine connecting to your corporate network? Where’s the machine been? What malware has it picked up along the way?

But a harder-to-ignore concern is what happens when something breaks. That’s when they’ll find that when things break, they’ll be paying workers to sit around while their technicians flail around trying to get unfamiliar devices working again. It’ll be great for job creation, but I think that will only be temporary.

If history repeats itself–as it usually does–they’ll find that the need for more and more desktop support staff far outweighs what they’re saving by not having to buy PCs. Then standardization will become the hot new trend.

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