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The Shrinking Home Office

The home office is going through a startling evolution.

The Shrinking Home Office

Mar 17, 2014 9:33 AM,
By Jason Bovberg

The home office is going through a startling evolution. Home office PC sales are at their lowest numbers in their history, thanks to the rise of tablet computers and smartphones, which offer unprecedented convenience, mobility, and power. You could even say the connected home of today is barreling toward a completely new paradigm: People would rather use their mobile devices for such activities as email and other forms of communication, and beyond. In our home, the PC is touched less and less often—only when we need to actually produce some kind of document, whether that’s in Microsoft Word or Excel, or a similar kind of productivity task.

Of course, this line of thinking is exactly why Microsoft came up with its line of Surface tablets, particularly its Surface Pro tablet, which I’m writing this column on. A productivity-based tablet created as an alternative to the more consumer-focused Apple iPad and Google Android-based media tablets, the Surface provides a bridge for those of us who still value the ability to do processor-intensive work on our devices, from the aforementioned Office-based tasks to much more demanding jobs such as video work and development. The Surface is a grand notion, but for whatever reason, it’s not catching on with the buying public. You might say that’s because of a general distrust or even dislike of Microsoft in general, but I think the truth runs deeper.

Do we live in an age when productivity has taken a back seat to frivolity and entertainment? It seems we used to be a culture, not too long ago, that valued work first and earned its play time, and that was reflected in the devices we used and how we used them. We had our desktop PCs and Macs, or our high-powered laptops, that we used in devoted spaces in our homes, whether that was in our home office or in our bedrooms. We used them for our letters and our spreadsheets, our documents and our databases, our music collections, and our data storage. They contained our digital lives. And in the evening, we saved our work, shut those machines off, and enjoyed our family time. When we consumed media, we used wholly separate devices such as TVs and stereo systems and game consoles.

Now, we’re a culture in which everything has converged. I thought that would mean we’d bring our full productivity aims to our new devices and more mobile and more comfortable settings. I remember watching commercials touting the use of the large-screen living-room TV as extended monitors for our keyboarding. I imagined a media server in the living room that doubled as a full-blown computing setup and an entertainment hub. What I didn’t imagine was that the very face of home computing would change—and in fact, disappear. The numbers of people using actual computer systems at home is falling rapidly, and those people are trying to do all of their essential computing tasks on media devices. And when they find they can’t perform certain tasks, they’re shrugging, postponing those tasks indefinitely, and returning to less-demanding tasks.

The bottom line is that many people are simply choosing not to do as much productivity at home.

I have a friend who is an elementary school teacher. To draw up lesson plans, this teacher once used his home Mac to store templates, research ideas, plan out strategies in custom spreadsheets, and work on testing and grading. He used his large monitor to organize visual aids and build PowerPoint presentations for certain lessons. Then, one year, he bought an iPad—a revolutionary device whose touchscreen glossiness brought a whole new experience to the concept of computing. He happily downloaded apps, games, music, and media, enjoying the device for what it was: an entertainment console that offered a pseudo-computing experience for media consumption, communication, and light productivity. Eventually, in love with his toy, he tried to shoehorn the iPad into his career, using its apps to instruct his kids, web-browse on the fly, and even devise lesson plans. The Mac in his home office gathered more and more dust as he relied more heavily on the iPad, which gradually became his primary device. Also gathering dust were his stored education materials and his productivity software.

Tellingly, his keyboard sat neglected, along with his mouse, his large monitor, and his powerful attached speakers. Where his tablet lacked inherent capabilities, he searched the Internet for accessories that might give him added functionality. He found a small keyboard to attach to the iPad, and made the small form factor work for his large hands. He downloaded limited productivity apps and found a way for them to offer something approaching professionalism. Where the tablet lacked key functionality and connectivity, he found workarounds or just did without. Interestingly, he was so enamored with the small, glossy tablet, that he happily forgave its limited capabilities or just found a way for them to work for him.

I have a feeling this is a common phenomenon: We are so starry-eyed for our smartphones and tablets, their extreme mobility and cool factor—that we’re finding ways (whether unwieldy or compromised or surprisingly workable) for them to do everything for us. Whereas we once valued powerful machines with massive amounts of storage, large displays, and ultra-capable software, we’re drifting toward a very real present characterized by flash storage, tiny form factors, miniscule screens, and featherweight apps. We’re just shrugging and saying, “Works for me.”

Are we headed toward a connected home in which we do all our productivity on the equivalent of Google Glass or other wearable tech—a future in which we try to perform actual work on the tiniest screens and most underperforming OSs possible? Or are we going to come to a realization at some point that processing power and complex software and screen real estate are important—even at home?

Or is the truth more pernicious—that we’re just not working as much in our lives, preferring to play games and watch media, putting aside the tasks that once characterized our connected home alongside the entertainment?

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