When you centralize the maintenance of state to a virtual desktop server, you immediately slash the costs involved. The screens from which people work can become generic, managed by a service company or even by a courier delivering new boxes to plug in when old ones break. There's no state to manage -- just furniture with power and data cords.
There's just as much software state, though, so the costs of managing the software and data used at each desktop remain the same as for desktop PCs. To control that cost, support contracts for desktop applications seem essential, and the attractions of traditional proprietary procurement are strong.
But what if the employee controls the device through which they interact? What if your enterprise IT control stopped at the server and left the desktop to the discretion of its user? If it were possible to do this, your costs would be limited to the servers that maintained data and state for application consumption, and not much further.
Naturally, you need strong hygiene rules -- good security and authentication, for example -- but you'll need those whatever you do, along with most of the other capabilities your users will consume. But you'll not need to manage the desktop, either at the PC/device or at the server.
Open source liberty
An immediate concern that's raised when this idea is proposed relates to software licensing. How do you ensure that your users are using properly licensed software? The answer is via a repository of approved software, populated as far as possible with open source.
One of the great unsung benefits of open source software is that it comes with full permission for anyone to use it for any purpose without further actions. While there are more rules for developers, end-users are free to use open software for anything -- period. No "software asset management." No licensing or compliance police. Just full-function freedom.
Do corporate IT departments need to worry about open source license compliance? Obviously, respecting authors and obeying the law are important, but for most of us the answer is probably no, there are bigger things to worry about. Open source software comes with a set of liberties commonly called "the four freedoms." My summary: Any software under an open source license may be used, studied, modified, and distributed for any purpose, as long as the license is obeyed. I believe all the benefits of open source are the first and second derivatives of these freedoms.
There are issues that companies shipping open source code as a part of products need to keep in mind, but in my view, they are no more complex and burdensome than the issues arising from shipping proprietary software. It's important to make sure you know you have the necessary rights to everything you ship, and when you ship code made from proprietary elements, you naturally do so. Only sloppy developers fail to do this, and the Linux Foundation’s program is a fine cure for that sloppiness.
Some staff will have needs that can't be met with BYOD or with open source software. There are always exceptions. There's no need to make your whole IT strategy revolve around them. Provide the capabilities they need, then charge them to their department cost center. By doing this, the real cost of using proprietary software or managed hardware will be reflected at a local level where local management can minimize it through local action, including training or changes to hiring practice.
Big challenges are often golden opportunities in disguise. Maybe BYOD is the challenge that, properly embraced, can finally bring open source to the enterprise desktop.
This article, "Is BYOD the precursor to the open source desktop?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.