Microsoft and Intel launch 'bring your own laptop to work' schemes

Is this the future of work or another step towards cubicle anarchy?
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The Independent Tech

You can't always blame the folk in the IT department for the wheezing, malfunctioning computers that you may have to contend with on a daily basis in the course of doing your job. These battle-hardened men and women, toting their admin passwords and USB sticks, are frequently hamstrung by a lack of resources and meagre budgets; they often have to keep a business running using technology that's ridiculously out of date. Computers are superseded by better models every month, but regularly upgrading a building's worth of technology is unrealistic. The irony of this situation is that everyone in the IT department – and probably the frustrated staff they're attempting to help – will often have far more powerful computers sitting at home doing nothing. Often, the tablet computer or phone in their bag under the desk are more powerful than the machine sitting on it.

Until recently, work machines and home machines were two very separate entities. Taking a company laptop home might require umpteen forms to be signed, in which you promise faithfully that you won't accidentally destroy it. Attaching your own machine to the company's network, meanwhile, is deemed a security risk that would have the aforementioned IT department crossing themselves and muttering a prayer. But the rise of remote working, teleworking, e-lancing – whatever you want to call it – has inevitably blurred those lines. More and more of our work is being done at home on our own machines. So why can't we simply bring our own computers to work, and get rid of the clunking behemoth on the desk that's long past its prime?

There are such schemes, known as Bring Your Own Computer, or BYOC. They've been adopted by a number of companies, including names you immediately associate with technology (Microsoft, Intel) and some you certainly don't (Kraft). At first glance, it's a no-brainer: the company simply offers a subsidy to its staff of a few hundred pounds and sends them shopping for a computer. We appreciate having a say in the machine we'll be using for 40 hours a week, and obviously we get to take it home and use it however we wish outside working hours. The business, meanwhile, saves on upgrading a stack of hardware; in the long term it'll save on software, too, because switching to BYOC means that all the work will happen "in the cloud".

Instead of launching word processors, spreadsheets or database programs from your computer's hard disk, we'd securely connect through an internet browser to virtual versions of those programs that are sitting in the ether – or, more accurately, on your company's server. All your correspondence, calendars, reports and presentations would be worked on and stored remotely, so your flashy new laptop or tablet essentially becomes a dumb terminal during working hours – a viewer, an access point. Then, as soon as you close that browser connection, your laptop is your own to do with what you will – full of music, games and photos of your canoeing holiday in Sweden. During the time you spend in the office, the difference to your way of working would be barely perceptible. But you might well start to think: "I don't actually need to be sat here. I could be anywhere." If you don't need a work machine to work, why come into the office at all? Long term, BYOC can certainly facilitate remote working and help to achieve a "work-life balance" that doesn't include an hour or more of commuting each day.

"Companies that are used to employing home-workers are the ones most likely to adopt BYOC," says Chris Knowles from Dimension Data, who helps to provide such schemes in the UK. "The company already has a certain level of IT infrastructure, and they know that it's an approach that can work. Also, those employees used to working outside the office tend to be a bit more self-sufficient – i.e. they don't need handholding if something goes wrong." With one computer now doing the job of two, the potential for saving money seems obvious, although Knowles stresses that it's early days. "We don't have enough evidence to prove this point – not least because organisations need to spend money upfront on a new cloud-based system to make this a reality. But there are signs that these kinds of schemes are valuable in that they attract the right kind of people to come and work for your organisation."

As you start to ponder BYOC, a whole list of "hang on, but what if?" scenarios spring to mind. Few of those concerns are borne by us, the proud employee carrying our shiny new device; our only real worry is the question of whether we can get online to get work done when we're away from the office. Intermittent internet access means intermittent access to the documents and applications that we use, but as time goes by this is going to be less and less of an issue, Knowles says. "There are new standards for wireless networking that will give us gigabit speeds," he says. "And that's when virtual computing will really take off."

The company, however, may well be fretting about a whole heap of things. Perhaps a scenario where, having promised a £400-per-head subsidy for a computer, your staff heads to eBay, skimps on a low-spec machine, pockets the difference and heads out for a posh meal with their partners. To regain control over the technology that's now powering the organisation, companies will inevitably have to lay down standards, give specification guidelines or even offer a selection of computers to choose from. It's not quite the free and easy choice that BYOC originally promised, but hey, the machine has to do the job.

Other issues come into play when you start providing computers as employee benefits – such as ensuring that you're not giving that benefit in a discriminatory way, for example – but by far the biggest flashing question mark over BYOC is one of security. There's something reassuring about a company's data all sitting in one building and only being accessed from that building. But not only is this increasingly unrealistic, it was never particularly secure in the first place. Data can always be copied to thumb drives and lost, intercepted online or sent to the wrong people by email.

And while businesses might fear the BYOC model of hundreds of computers with a direct internet connection to company data meandering around the world, the cloud model means that the almost-clichéd scenario of a civil servant leaving a laptop full of sensitive material on a train is banished for ever. "One of the key drivers for adopting BYOC is to enhance security," Graham Hann, a lawyer at Taylor Wessing, says. "Yes, it can be a problem if it's if done badly and without a properly secure model, but in theory it should contain the spread of sensitive data."

But while your employees' new machines are supposedly dumb terminals for work purposes, they're sophisticated pieces of technology. And while work documents shouldn't need to sit on these computers, policing a ban on saving documents to hard drives is impossible.

Also, because these computers are now personal possessions, people are less likely to be robust about looking after them. "You're more likely to let other people use your machine," Hann says, "you're more likely to have it with you when you go away, there's a greater chance of it going astray.

"In essence, you're giving people the opportunity to put client-sensitive information, and indeed information about colleagues, on their own IT equipment. In some areas that's low risk, but not all." And when you come to leave that organisation, your access to the server may be cut off, but it'll be impossible to stop you downloading and storing company data beforehand.

Despite these issues with BYOC as a concept, Hann doesn't believe the legal implications are sufficiently serious to prevent businesses from taking it up. The only remaining niggle, perhaps, is the idea of a building full of employees working on machines that double as boundless sources of amusement and entertainment. If something as dull as a game of solitaire is able to distract people from their mundane everyday tasks, imagine the temptation of folders crammed with games, videos and music; those acceptable-use policies that currently stop us from misusing the internet at work will inevitably have to be extended – although whether it'll stop people timewasting is debatable.

"The more you allow people to use their own equipment the harder it is, culturally, to enforce them to use it in the way you want," Hann says. "And if you're outside the building during work hours, you can't legislate at all."

It'll be interesting to see if companies try saying, "Well, we've part-funded this computer, we get to say what you do with it". But under BYOC, it's ours. Surely they can trust our consciences?