For companies looking to buy workplace computers, the decision used to consist of two basic choices: Laptop or desktop? Windows or Mac? Now, the options for employees’ computing needs are becoming increasingly diverse—and confusing.
The popularity of smartphones and tablets in people’s personal lives helped spark a broader rethinking of how work gets done, and what computing devices are best to keep employees happy and productive. On the wane is the idea of companies buying 5,000 of the same brand desktops for everybody, and repeating the cycle every five years or so.
“It’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all world anymore,” says J.P. Gownder, a Forrester Research Inc. FORR +0.40% analyst who consults with companies on their technology.
That means more companies are mixing it up, tailoring their computer choices to fit a variety of jobs. One company may have a fleet of iPads for its salespeople to show coming shoe designs to clients, and conventional desktop PCs for its workers at the home office. Others are buying stripped-down laptops that rely mostly on connections to corporate networks via the Internet. And a small number of businesses are letting the employees decide what kinds of computers work best for their jobs.
Mr. Gownder’s basic advice to companies: Do an audit. Ask employees—through simple survey programs like SurveyMonkey, and during in-depth interviews—how they use computers, phones and tablets for work, and what they feel they’re missing. And he says companies shouldn’t forget to pay attention to what workers are doing and using without corporate permission. That may be even more revealing than what they say in a survey.
For businesses trying to balance costs with complexity and strategic goals, here is a rundown of five categories of workplace computing options, and the major benefits and drawbacks of each.
1. The Old Standby: Windows
Computers running the Windows operating system have been a workplace staple for three decades, and remain appealing to companies for three big reasons: familiarity, compatibility and breadth.
Most software—particularly older or customized corporate programs—has been built to work best on Windows. IT staff know how to work on and fix problems with Windows machines. Workers know how to use Windows (although Microsoft Corp. MSFT +2.47% ’s latest version, Windows 8, has prompted some retraining). The variety of machines using Windows means there’s practically a PC for every need.
Website publisher CBS Interactive has been shifting some of its computer purchases back to Windows PCs from Apple Inc. AAPL +0.37% ’s Mac computers. The CBS Corp. CBS -0.43% unit says it’s gravitating toward Windows laptops that are similar in look and feel to the slim MacBook Air, but with work-friendly features such as more ports to connect machines to desktop computer monitors.
With new types of machines—like PCs that can double as tablets, or those that seek the same long battery life and sleek look of the MacBook Air—Microsoft and its allies are trying to ditch their reputation for making the clunky, bug-prone workhorses employees hate to use.
Companies that sell PCs to businesses say the biggest gripes about Windows-based machines are in part due to the businesses saddling their workers with old and underpowered machines. Make sure to purchase machines hardy enough to run all the software employees need, they say.
For many workers, tablets are an add-on rather than a replacement for their PCs. Experts say companies need to make sure tablets are worth the extra cost, since they are fragile and easy to lose.
For road-warrior workers, however, or technicians who hardly ever sit at a desk, tablets can be revolutionary.
Mary Kay Inc. says tablets have changed how its three million sales consultants pitch the company’s beauty products. Using a customized app called “Show and Sell,” created with New York firm ScrollMotion Inc., the Mary Kay reps tailor what skin-care products they show women. And they can connect a tablet to a TV so groups of women at Mary Kay parties can watch how-to videos about the products.
For the consultants, this is a big improvement from the days when they had to make women flip through a thick catalog to show a handful of products that were appropriate for their age or skin type. The consultants also can hand the customer the tablet to make a purchase right away. “That really helps make the sale easier,” says Sara Friedman, Mary Kay’s vice president of U.S. marketing.
But businesses can’t just give employees tablets without a plan. For instance, companies need to make sure that all of the software their workers use can be accessed from mobile devices. That can be a complicated and costly effort. General Electric Co. GE +0.79% , for example, made a significant investment to rework its applications to work seamlessly on tablets and phones.
And buyer beware. Just because the boss decides tablets are the ticket to productive workers, it doesn’t mean the devices will catch on. Even if the tablets truly are more useful than a desktop, broad acceptance often depends on what the managers themselves are using.
AMAG Pharmaceuticals Inc. AMAG -1.45% buys iPads for its workforce of more than 150 people, but many of them sit unused in people’s desk drawers, says Nate McBride, a vice president for the Waltham, Mass.-based company. Many of AMAG’s managers don’t have the time or the inclination to incorporate the tablets into their work lives, and employees follow their lead, Mr. McBride says.
3. Chromebooks or “Virtual” Desktops
Another mobile option is what the technology industry calls “thin clients”—machines where most if not all tasks are done over the Internet or via remote corporate-computing networks. Almost nothing is saved on the computer itself.
The most visible examples of this are Chromebooks, which are simplified laptops powered by Google Inc. GOOGL -0.86% ’s Chrome operating system. Companies including Citrix Systems Inc., VMware Inc. VMW +1.59% and Amazon.com Inc. AMZN -8.34% also sell “virtual desktop” software that gives employees remote access to a handful of work applications or a mirror of their corporate PCs from any Internet-connected device.
The downsides of thin clients are many. Chromebooks and computers using virtual-desktop software sometimes are incompatible with software that was designed to be installed on the computer itself, such as the teleconference service GoToMeeting from Citrix. And while lots of work-related apps for tablets were designed to function offline, the thin clients are nearly entirely dependent on having a good broadband or cellular network connection.
For business users that can make do with limited computing features, however, thin clients’ big benefits of low cost and control outweigh the risks.
Chromebooks are inexpensive to buy and replace, and it’s easy to fix problems remotely, says David Hoff, senior vice president of technology at Cloud Sherpas, an Atlanta-based firm that helps companies buy technology from Google and other providers. Chromebooks typically cost $250 to $350 each, plus $150 a machine for business support. Managers can set up a list of common Web bookmarks for many employees at once, or restrict which websites or other functions the Chromebook user can access.
Full-size iPads, by comparison, cost $499 and up for the latest model. And while iPads can also be managed remotely, it’s not as easy as it is with a Chromebook.
Mr. Hoff says his firm is seeing the most adoption of Chromebooks by companies with lots of mobile employees who previously weren’t using computers at all. One of his clients, for example, is a chain of franchised deli restaurants that has a few hundred managers who pop from store to store and don’t have a regular desk or an IT staff to help when things go wrong. For them, he says, Chromebooks make sense because the managers’ needs—and their resources—are limited.
The knock on Macs in the workplace has been they’re expensive, they lack built-in tools to manage large numbers of computers at once, and sometimes aren’t ideal to use with common workplace applications, many of which are tailored to work best—or only—on Windows PCs. Some of those objections are easing, particularly as workers do more with software designed for the Web.
Jason Wudi, chief technology officer for JAMF Software, a Minneapolis-based company that provides tools for businesses to manage Macs, says companies don’t often set out to buy Mac computers, but often do so in capitulation to employees.
“We go where people are already demanding and dragging in their user devices,” Mr. Wudi says.
In some industries, such as media or technology firms, potential new recruits also expect a Mac on every desk, and not having them can be a barrier to recruiting.
5. Bring Your Own Device
For a small number of companies, the best approach to workplace computers is not to favor any particular type at all. Companies tell workers to buy and bring to work whatever they want. Typically, employers will offer a stipend to offset all or part of the cost.
The do-it-yourself movement at companies started with smartphones, but the wave has started spreading to computers, too.
But if companies give workers the money, and they buy a really cheap tablet that can’t run any of a company’s corporate apps, the scenario may not help the company. IT support also can be tough if an organization has a fleet of different devices.
The trend reflects worker unhappiness with being forced to use what their companies give them. More than half of workers, and roughly two-thirds of younger workers, say the computers they use at home are better than their equipment at work, according to Forrester Research surveys.