Where goes the PC?

It’s now hard to read technology news without some mention of the decline of the PC – which is usually taken to mean Microsoft Windows based platforms. The latest one from Gartner indicates that global PC sales have fallen for the fifth quarter in a row, making it the “longest duration of decline” in history – down from 90 million units per quarter in late 2009, to 76 million units in the latest survey. The report is summarised on the BBC web site which includes a chart showing the spectacular rise in sales of tablet computers (iPad’s and similar) – widely agreed to be the main cause of the decline in PC sales.

It’s not just the Microsoft world – although Apple has bucked the trend, things seem to be catching up with them too .

What’s going on here, and what does this mean for future computing devices at RGU? Two things – (1) the PC format is not going to disappear suddenly tomorrow, but (2) the tablet format is definitely here to stay.

Let’s take the PC first. For years, most of the innovation was around the PC format and people faithfully upgraded their (perfectly good) PC’s every 3 to 5 years to get the latest technology and software. Now the innovation is in the tablet and smartphone space. People are still using PC’s where they need more power or sophistication in the software, but the PC they have is “good enough” for now, and instead of upgrading their PC many feel there is greater value in buying a tablet. I don’t know anyone who has actually thrown out their PC and replaced it completely with a tablet. A decline in sales does not necessarily mean a decline in use of the same magnitude at this stage and there is a whole world of software and services built around the PC platform that remains essential to everyday work life. It’s a bit like at the start of the recent economic recession – sales of new cars plummeted. People were still driving like before, it’s just that for a while they didn’t buy new cars.

What about tablets? Tablets bring a new world of opportunity in terms of their mobility, “instant on”, ease of use and long battery life to name but a few. Software similar to that available on PC platforms is available at a fraction of the price. As the power of tablets increases, they will progressively start to encroach on the functions carried out by PC’s – although the pace at which this happens will be interesting, as PC’s will grow in power as well. Have a look at the book “The Innovator’s Dilemma” for some great insight as to what might happen here based on previous technology shifts.

Our overall strategy is to sustain the existing, mission critical, PC based environment and software, but position it, and our future services, to be available on a wider range of devices {see MyApps post}. At the same time, we want to start exploring new opportunities brought about by tablets as these become a greater part of the device portfolio used by staff and students.

What about Windows 8? That’s almost worth a post in its own right. There are many views expressed online, but it seems the general consensus is that Windows 8 is not a great user experience for mainstream PC use – unless perhaps you have a touch screen. Touch seems to work better on mobile devices, but for vertically mounted touch screens there are concerns about its ease of use and “gorilla arm”. And then there’s the start button, or not . . .

Remember that the Windows platform is still mission critical to organisations, 76 million shipments per quarter is still huge, and the traditional Windows 7 user interface with mouse and keyboard is still the most effective interface for everyday tasks. If Microsoft are trying to take a leaf out of Apple’s book by creating a closer integration between their Surface tablet, and the desktop – they should remember that Apple didn’t bring wholesale change to their OSX platform to achieve this when they brought out the iPad.

Moving to Windows 8 will not be a simple transition and will require significant training across the organisation in comparison with previous versions. Right at the moment, therefore, we’re not rushing to rollout Windows 8 across our desktop at RGU and will focus on Windows 7 and removing the remaining areas of XP. However, we can’t stay on Windows 7 for ever, so we will watch carefully how the Windows platform develops further and how people in general start to become more at home with the later versions.

Interesting to hear the news about Steve Ballmer and it’s effect on the Microsoft share price. . .

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Moving to Riverside East

It’s just a few weeks before the first part of Riverside East, our new building down at the Garthdee Campus, will be open for staff and students.  The Library is moving first and they plan to have moved out of the Aberdeen Business School and into the new building around the end of May. Sounds like they are having fun with red and green dots getting ready to move thousands of books – have a look at their blog.

We’re having fun too in IT Services, although we’re not quite seeing dots in front of our eyes yet. Before anyone can move into the new building we need to get all the IT equipment set up ready for staff and students to move in.

First priority is to build the IT network. All the cabling work has been done as part of the construction project, but what we have to do now is install all the network routers and switches which will drive the whole network across the building, and connect it up to the rest of the Campus. The network kit has been bought and the IT Engineers are on site to start the installation. It’s a complex process. The network equipment needs to be physically installed into the communications rooms and communications risers in the building, and thousands of cables need to be connected up to the correct network equipment. It’s essential that this is done systematically and neatly from the beginning to make access for future maintenance easy. Then it’s all got to be systematically configured and tested. The priority is to get everything ready for the Library first, but in order to do that much of the whole building network core needs to be done anyway. So in terms of sequencing, we’ll get the Library done first and then move on to the remainder of the building according to the move schedule for the Schools and Departments moving in. Because some of the construction work is still ongoing, health and safety is an important priority and all the IT engineers who will be working on site are going through formal safety training first.

Next come the IT workstations – approximately 400 are going into the Library space in time for it to open for students. There is a team of IT staff, ably assisted by some students from the School of Engineering, who are currently taking lots of workstations out of their boxes and cabling them up ready for installation in the new building. That’s fine, but of course you can’t put the workstations into the Library until there are desks to sit them on. So, all this IT work is actually now part of a very intensive programme of work to co-ordinate all the activities for the move into the building. The University has contracted with a company called Space Solutions and they are managing the overall programme of work – actually right down to scheduling the use of the lifts in the building. There’s no point in a bunch of IT guys arriving with hundreds of workstations and furniture guys with loads of desks and then fighting over who gets to use the lift. Just goes to show what level of detail has to be planned at this stage.

At the tail end of all of this there will be a fairly intensive period when the desks are going into the library, the workstations are going on the desks, are being connected up and tested, and somewhere round about this time thousands of books will be getting moved across and into their proper places on the shelves. Then of course there will be printers to install, and the self service issuing terminals for borrowers to use.

I’m sure it will look like an oasis of calm when the doors open and students go into the new building. Inevitably there will be some snagging at that stage, but spare a thought for a month of very hard work which will have preceded the opening!

 

Files on Fire

 

Last week we had our annual Health and Safety internal conference at RGU. We heard first hand from another University which had experienced a major fire, and was willing to share with us their lessons learned. We’d had a similar talk two years ago from another University which had experienced a major fire. You would think these were rare occurrences, but it was suggested that we should search on the Internet for “University fire explosion” – try it yourself and see what comes up.

It’s a great feature of the HE sector that we have such open sharing of experience and lessons learned. Following each of these major fires, the institutions quickly discovered that many staff were still storing the only copy of some electronic files and documents locally, on their laptops or desktops. They weren’t backed up. In some cases, there were also some local servers with important departmental data on them. They weren’t backed up either. 

For each presentation, we were shown images of burnt and/or soaking wet IT equipment being dried out in large dehumidifier arrangements before some IT recovery firm then set about recovering the precious data. In many cases this was important research data. Amazingly, the recovery was able to retrieve a lot of this data, but it took some weeks and the data was inaccessible during that time. For equipment unfortunate enough to be near the seat of a large fire – forget it.

None of this is anything new. You shouldn’t have to have experienced a car crash to know the importance of wearing a seatbelt. So, we shouldn’t have to experience a fire to know the importance of making sure our important electronic information is securely stored and backed up. If you place it on one of the University Shared Network Drives, or any of the main University systems such as Moodle – it’s all safe and secure.

If, however, you have the only copy of something important stored on your desktop computer, and no backup anywhere else, then as you close the door tonight to go home just imagine that’s the last time you see your office in one piece.

How does that feel?

 

 

 

 

My Slender Friend

Often, when I discuss with a friend or colleague “thin client” I get (understandably) a completely blank look. Most desktop computers in use at RGU today are what we in the trade call “fat client”. That means that the box that sits on your desk (or under it) is a fully fledged personal computer, usually running Microsoft Windows or Apple OSX, with software installed on it to meet your needs – just like the one you probably have at home. So you’ve learned something – your home computer is a “fat client”.

And if your home computer is anything like the norm, it’s a bit of work to keep it up to date. There are always new versions of software to load, updates being downloaded, things go wrong, and it has to be backed up so that you don’t lose any of your files and settings (you do backup your home computer . . . don’t you?). When you get a new computer, there is all the pain of transferring across all your software and files and of course always some software that stubbornly refuses to work on the new computer.

If that’s a battle at home, try managing 3000 of these things in an environment like the University. They also consume a lot of energy and output a lot of heat – particularly where you have lots of PC’s in an IT Lab.

So, if that’s “fat client”, what’s “thin?”. With “thin client”, all your software, settings and data are run on central servers. At RGU, you access these through our “MyApps” service which I have mentioned in a previous post. The box that sits on your desk has just about nothing in it – it just has to connect you to MyApps. That’s why it is called “thin”. That means it’s dead simple, uses little energy and it’s a piece of cake to install it. If it goes wrong – just get another one.

We are shortly going to start installing these across the University to replace traditional PC’s. This will substantially reduce our energy bills and simplify our IT support. What does a “thin client” look like? It looks just like a “fat client” except it’s thinner and totally silent. You still have a keyboard, you still have a mouse, you still have a monitor, and the software you use is still the same.

I’ve just received one, and I will use it from now on as my main University computer. I am writing this blog entry on it – it’s just the same as using Microsoft Word on any computer.

We won’t be putting thin client everywhere – some specialist software applications run better with a “fat client” computer so we will keep these where they are required. Wherever possible, however, we will over the next few years be buying “thin client” computers instead.

Andy McCreath

Microsoft Office and other Windows software on your iPad

In an earlier blog I introduced our “future desktop” project. One key element of that project is the ability to make Microsoft Windows based software packages available across a greater range of platforms. The technology we use for this is provided by Citrix, and you can use it now on your mobile device. This only applies if you are a registered student with RGU, or a member of staff, and for students I’m afraid that some license restrictions apply at the moment. For example, we can’t provide access to Microsoft Office for students but we do offer a version of Open Office and a growing number of other applications.

So, if you are staff or student at RGU, and want to take Citrix for a test drive on your iPad – download the app and have a look – it’s free!

Full instructions can be found under “MyApps – advanced and device support” on our web site.

On an iPad, download the free Citrix Receiver app. When you first fire it up, select “add account” to the menu that pops up. The address to enter is “http://myapps.rgu.ac.uk”. Press “next” and then you will see a screen where it asks for the description of the account (anything you like), username, password and domain. Enter your normal username, leave the password blank, and put in “rgu.ac.uk” for the domain. It will then pop up with a further screen entitled “enter credentials.” At this point enter your password, it will verify your account, and if all goes well you will get a menu with all the applications you are entitled to access.

Try launching Microsoft Word or any other application you fancy. Here is a screen clip from Microsoft Word on my iPad:

Just touch the screen in place of mouse clicks. If you want the keyboard to pop up, touch the pull down arrow at the top of the screen and you should get a menu as follows:

Touch the keyboard icon and you can start to type. It’s worth exploring “gestures” to see how to right click, zoom, drag the mouse etc. If you do that, you will see that a three finger tap is another way to call up the keyboard. If you have more than one application open, the two finger tap will toggle between application windows (like Alt+tab). Press the “home” icon to get back to the list of applications and launch another one.

If you have a bluetooth keyboard (I use the standard Apple one), and pair it with your iPad, you can type on a full size keyboard and everything starts to get really good – full version of Microsoft Office applications and you can type away on your keyboard. If you have one of the Apple VGA adapters and a suitable monitor, you can plug your iPad into an external monitor. Depending on which iPad version you have you may then have to go into Settings and turn on the external display. Now you have a full size keyboard and monitor. . .

If you want to have even more fun, and if you have an iPhone, you can fire up Citrix on the iPhone, turn on Bluetooth on your iPhone and iPad. Click on “pair” on your iPad Citrix App and then on your iPhone touch the wee pointer arrow at the bottom left of the screen of Citrix app.

It should ask you to accept the iPad connection. Now your iPhone acts as a trackpad. So, now you have a full size keyboard, external monitor and a (pretty expensive) mouse!

I digress. Most of the time, the whole purpose of this app is to provide you with the convenience of access to all your University Windows based software applications when you are on the move – you are unlikely to be carrying your monitor and keyboard in your back pocket. It does, however, serve to illustrate where some of this might go. Give it a few years and it might be increasingly normal to drop by a convenient keyboard and monitor, hook up your iPad and off you go.

The Citrix app works on the iPhone too, and Windows Mobile and Android platforms. Mind you, Microsoft Word on an iPhone is stretching things with such a small screen – but yes, you can use it.

Andrew McCreath

What will you be using in 5 years time?

You will perhaps have noticed that a few of entries in this blog have been in relation to the “desktop”. We’ve had an entry about our “future desktop” project, the “personal environment” as a key priority in our new IT Strategy and more recently a summary of how we are setting about buying PC’s for 2012/13. Desktop devices are always going to be of great interest to our staff and students – they are the “first contact” with our IT resources, define a huge part of the user experience and how we can get the best out of IT, and we spend a lot of money on them!

I will shortly be opening up some wider consultation on how we see the future landscape here and what principles should guide what we provide to staff and students. The traditional desktop device – whether Windows or Apple, desktop or laptop – dominates the IT provision in most organisations today. Typically, depending on a combination of user / technical requirements and affordability, these are refreshed on a 3 – 5 year cycle. So, on current trajectories, some equipment that we buy this year will still be in use in 2017. In such a fast changing world, we will need to be very careful with our procurement year on year to make sure we don’t end up with excess legacy equipment and to make sure that we can keep pace with major changes in what people expect to use. In the post about “MyApps” I explained some of the steps we were taking now to allow our services to be delivered onto a range of devices in future.

So, what might we expect in five years time?

Some kind of workstation is probably going to remain important. The need for a full size screen / keyboard is almost certainly going to be essential for significant and complex content creation, media work, multi tasking etc. Behind the workstation might be still be a desktop PC (though it’s anyone’s guess what the operating system will look like), or it might be a laptop docked to the workstation, or it might be a low powered “thin client” device. In some cases it will be a tablet computer, such as a future iPad, or even a smart phone. These devices even today can be hooked up to a full size monitor and keyboard – it’s not quite the experience of a desktop computer, but surprisingly close – especially if you combine it with MyApps.

For mobile access, in some shape or form tablet computers such as the iPad and Android platforms will increasingly dominate. Today’s versions are not yet as good as a full power laptop for significant and complex content creation etc, but they will catch up year on year – I would guess in 5 years time still not a full laptop replacement device but much much closer than they are today.

We will (or should) print less. Mobile platforms are great for reading and some organisations are already giving out iPads in order to remove print costs.

So, still a continuing need for the workstation and keyboard, but the underlying platform shifting heavily to mobile formats. The nature of software applications will evolve during this transition too. We will still be using “desktop” style applications in 5 years time, but accessing them through a variety of platforms and mixing their use with mobile based apps and richer web environments.

We’re planning for all this to happen, but facing some uncertainties:
• the speed at which “tipping points” will be reached
• the balance between what the University provides and what staff and students will bring in themselves

We want to be poised ready to “catch the wave”.

The Gartner CIO briefing on “the future of client computing” makes an interesting further read.

MyApps – the Foundation of Future Desktop

At RGU, we have around many desktop computers in use across the Campus. Staff and students use these computers to access a whole range of University provided applications (Microsoft Office, Autocad, Photoshop, Adobe Acrobat, web browsers, Moodle and many others), and to access services such as file storage on the H: and S: drives and printing.

One of the main aims of our “future desktop” project is to allow staff and students to access these applications and services not just from University computers, but from any device, wherever they are. This includes personal laptops, home computers, iPads etc. The project will also allow us to reduce energy consumption in the University through the use of simpler low-energy computers, and will make it much easier to manage and upgrade applications – thereby providing a better service for staff and students.

This project is based on the “MyApps” service which was launched last year. MyApps is a web-based service and allows staff and students to access University applications and services through a web page (or an “app” on a mobile device)- this is what makes it so flexible.

OK, I am a member of staff – what does it mean for me?

We will be working through each School and Department progressively to rollout MyApps over the next 12-18 months – starting first with those Schools and Departments who are moving into the new Campus building at Garthdee in 2013.

When we reach your area we will help you to start using MyApps and become familiar with it. We will check all the applications you need to use so that we can make them available on MyApps. Ultimately, we want to get you to a point where you can use MyApps to access most if not all of your applications – on Campus, at home, and on your mobile device.

MyApps won’t do everything – some laptops and traditional computers will still be required, but we are looking to move about 80% of our computers onto the MyApps service over the next 2 years.

OK, I am a student – what does it mean for me?

If you are using computers on the University Campus, you won’t have to do anything. MyApps will allow us to improve our service to you and will also allow you to print directly to any of the student printers in the University straight from your laptop, iPad, smartphone or whatever.

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This is going to be a significant change and I hope this article has provided you with some background and the benefits to both staff and students. We’ll follow up soon with further articles on MyApps as the project progresses and to give guidance, tips and tricks on how to get the most out of this new service.

Andy McCreath