I want to begin this column with an outrageous statement (you must be used to that by now!) – and that is, there's really no difference anymore between mobile and desktop operations in essentially any area of IT. In other words, anything you can do in the office you can do on the road. That being said, one size most certainly does not fit all in this case. I work on mobile solutions all the time and have found that any given solution falls into one of three distinct philosophical categories. Which of these applies in a given situation depends to some extent on the particular biases of those involved, but I've used all of them quite effectively over the years:
- Duplicate the desktop – With the advent of modern notebooks that truly duplicate the functionality of desktop PCs, it makes sense to have all of the capabilities of one's desktop computer on the notebook – all of the same applications, and access to data via synchronization. So, while a completely duplicated environment can make sense (and can provide some backup in the event of a failure of one machine or the other), many professionals have ditched their desktops altogether and use only a notebook. A docking station with a larger monitor and keyboard can completely eliminate any reason to own a desktop, and having only one machine makes both maintenance and use a lot simpler. Costs are also reduced; software licenses are amazingly expensive now and are becoming more expensive all the time. Nevertheless, I still use a desktop when I'm in the office -- for reasons of performance and to have a backup if a computer fails. (Indeed, I have four machines -- three of which are notebooks -- ready to go just in case.)
- Access the desktop – Remote access has been an integral part of mobile computing for as long as I can remember. Indeed, VPNs are commonly used for this purpose. Another option is a PC-oriented remote access solution, such as GoToMyPC, LapLink Everywhere, or Route1. The key here is your remote access strategy. Do you want to access a specific machine on the network, such as your desktop computer or a specific server, or do you want to be a node on the office LAN? Do you want remote control of a specific computer, or file access and transfer? These are the capabilities to consider when defining your solution; just make sure that you understand the security implications of the solution you select and that it fits with your firm's security policy. It's good practice to encrypt all sensitive data and to use strong authentication and virtual private network (VPN) techniques – whether in the office or on the road.
- Replace the desktop (and the notebook!) – This is where things really get interesting. PDAs were originally used to manage personal information and were synchronized with a PC via a serial or (later) a USB cable. Once we put radios in PDAs and turned them into smartphones, everything changed – or started to, at least. Smartphones are still not full peers on the enterprise LAN, but that's going to change over the next few years. Apple's iPhone points the way. We may be at the beginning of the end of the era of everyone getting a notebook -- instead getting a smartphone that just happens to have a PC inside. Note that today's smartphones are sometimes usable for remote access and even as platforms for Web-based applications. In the future, they will probably support desktop executing environments, meaning that the degree of flexibility we'll have in the field will truly match that available in the office.
I think that with greater availability of wireless broadband services, we'll eventually move entirely to the Web services model, wherein mobile (and desktop!) devices become more like terminals running off server farms accessed over broadband networks, whether within the enterprise or on the road, and irrespective of whether a network is wired or wireless. In this model, there are no mobile operating systems and applications to maintain, less concern about viruses and malware, and much lower costs. In the meantime, no matter what your strategy, there's a mobile platform ready to fill the bill.