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End-user computing trends of the past, present and future

The last 20 years were a journey from homogeneous to heterogeneous EUC environments. One question for the next 20 is how well we will finish adapting to this new world.

TechTarget is now 20 years old. In those 20 years, IT has seen a variety of end-user computing trends come and go.

Let's celebrate with a look back at the year 1999 and forward to 2039.

What is EUC?

End-user computing (EUC) is a term that didn't exist 20 years ago. At the time, there was no need for it because almost everything that users touched consisted of Windows PCs and applications. Companies just had desktop administrators.

But, today, the term end-user computing is a necessary acknowledgement of the heterogeneous environments that users interact with.

In the course of a day, they may work with Windows applications, internal web apps, virtual apps, SaaS or cloud-based web apps, and native mobile apps. This can happen on a Windows laptop, a Mac, a browser, an Android or iOS phone, or a tablet. Users can be in the office, at home, connected to public Wi-Fi or on a cellular connection.

This fundamental shift -- the growing diversity of apps, devices and work styles -- is one of the most important EUC changes in the last 20 years.

20 years ago

Looking back two decades, it's easy to identify the biggest constant.

The Microsoft Windows OS and Windows applications, which are still a key part of EUC today, were fully established and dominated EUC in 1999. Active Directory and Group Policy were still in the future, but Microsoft Systems Management Server, which evolved into the dominant System Center Configuration Manager, was on version 2.0, having been out for five years.

Mobility, of course, was much more basic. Yes, BlackBerry devices were technically around, but their rise to popularity was still years away. Instead, for most employees, mobility meant pagers. Cellphone minutes were still expensive and carefully guarded.

The biggest difference is that all aspects of an IT pro's job moved more slowly.

When outside of the office, getting a laptop online and connected to corporate resources was a big task. It may have required swapping out a PC card, depending on what type of connection users had, and then looking up a text file with lists of phone numbers for an internet service provider. Essentially, this meant that, even though laptops were portable, they were isolated islands for most of the day.

More importantly, the process of IT pros learning about technology was slower, too. There was no ability to instantly Google and find dozens of answers for any problem. Instead, knowledge came from physical books, email lists or Microsoft TechNet, a subscription service offering sets of dozens of CD-ROMs with documentation. This meant that IT pros spent more time troubleshooting problems independently.

Thanks to the slower pace of software updates -- a desktop OS could easily be in production for five years -- some IT pros look back two decades and see a time when software quality was higher. How much of this supposed quality is true and how much is rose-colored nostalgia is hard to tell, however.

The shifts leading to 2019

Many of the main shifts from 1999 to 2019 are in recent enough memory to appear obvious. Web and SaaS apps became more powerful and then became viable alternatives to the incumbent Windows applications. Now, they are the default. Mobile devices went from portable email machines to devices that can replace PCs and laptops for many tasks, as well as open up new business models. Overall, connectivity and the pace of changes increased, and now, here we are.

Certainly, there have been many sticking points. End users often adopted web and SaaS apps and mobile devices before IT and then brought them into work. This was a complete reversal of the old ways when IT was completely in charge.

The consumerization of IT, as it was called, was, in many cases, a shock, leading to chaos and security risks, as well as technological leaps forward.

Combining work and personal data on a single device, another trend stemming from the mobile revolution, was another sticking point that again put IT in a different position than ever before.

Fortunately, the tools for managing SaaS apps and mobile devices came along in the form of enterprise mobility management (EMM) and identity management, and today, they're quite mature.

Mobile devices and SaaS apps had the advantage that they were generally resistant to many traditional forms of viruses and malware but, unfortunately, brought their own sets of issues. Phishing campaigns and stolen and weak passwords became some of the top security issues in this new EUC world.

End-user computing trends today

In 2019, the traditional strictly defined devices and network perimeter associated with EUC have now been broken down. Users have many different types of apps and devices, and they expect to be able to use them from anywhere.

The challenge now is to tie all of these EUC tools together.

We have many of the individual tools in place to deal with this work: EMM, identity management and new security tools to give enterprises the appropriate context in the modern world.

The challenge now is to tie all of these EUC tools together. A new model is emerging for this, often called workspace management. Every EUC vendor is selling their wares as part of a zero-trust offering, using conditional access.

Customers are starting to get their heads around this, but many EUC departments are also occupied by dealing with Windows 10's new servicing model, probably the biggest Windows change in 20 years that no one asked for.

Most recently, the latest end-user computing trends have to do with ensuring a good employee experience, but what that really means is still up in the air.

The future of end-user computing trends

It is much more difficult to predict 20 years ahead to 2039. It would be easy to make fantastic statements about AI and 5G -- and 6G -- connectivity, but it's more practical to focus on immediate hopes.

In the next two to five years, conditional access technologies, powered by policy engines that can take all the appropriate user, app, data, device and security context into consideration, should provide a common framework for dealing with the heterogenous EUC world.

EUC deployments should then be much more resilient and unified. Instead of focusing on a specific type of device within a perimeter, any type of device or app can plug into the management, access and security controls. When the next new device or OS comes along, it won't be a shock; instead, it will be a matter of course.

Looking at the more fantastical side of future predictions, we should hope that digital assistants truly become smart enough to deal with complex, multiapp workflows. New app runtimes and logic will come and go, but someone or something will always have to be present to make sure that users get access to the proper apps and data to get their jobs done. This will be the task for EUC pros then, as it is now.

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