Bring your own PC

Do you hate the computer you use for work? Maybe you're a Macintosh fan and your company is wedded to Windows? Wish your employer would let you use your own PC?
Kraft has found that some employees are more productive when using the tools they prefer to work with.

Do you hate the computer you use for work? Maybe you're a Macintosh fan and your company is wedded to Windows? Wish your employer would let you use your own PC?

If so, maybe you should be working at Kraft Foods. Starting in early May — and so far only in its U.S. operations — Kraft is allowing some employees to pick their own notebook or desktop computers for work.

Kraft is one of the latest in a string of employers trying out the idea of giving employees money to buy their own office computers. So far most of the pioneers have been technology companies, including Microsoft Corp. and software vendor Citrix Systems Inc., but the idea is starting to draw interest outside the tech sector as well.

Kraft gives employees enough money to pay for a computer that will comfortably meet their work needs, but if the employees want to add some of their own money and buy a fancier machine they can, says Roberta Badieux, director of workplace services in the food giant's information systems department. And they can choose the make and model they prefer. "One of the items that we're focused on is providing choice."

The company has found that some employees are more productive when using the tools they prefer to work with. That choice includes allowing those who like Apple's Macintosh to use it rather than the Windows PCs the company has traditionally bought. Employees must buy the Microsoft Office suite of software — which is available for both Windows and Mac — with their machine, but the other software they need for work runs on Kraft servers and is available to the employees over a network connection.

A couple of hundred employees have already signed up for Kraft's "bring your own computer" program, Badieux says. Those employees own the computers they buy and can use them for personal tasks as well, subject to company rules. They must use Kraft-provided encryption and security software on the machines, and they are given company guidelines about safe practices for installing software, visiting external websites and so on.

The caveat is that employees who handle sensitive and confidential corporate information aren't eligible for the program, Badieux says.

Kraft hopes to expand the program outside the U.S. soon, and discussions on launching it in Canada are already under way, she says.

BYOPC not for every employer

While it has become fairly common for employees to buy their own mobile devices — cellphones, smart phones and personal organizers — with subsidies or expense allowances from their employers, the idea of extending that approach to notebooks and desktop computers is rare.

It started appearing at the depths of the recession, says Mark Tauschek, research director at Info-Tech Research Group, an information technology consulting firm in London, Ont. He says some cash-strapped employers were trying to cut their overhead by sharing the cost of PCs with their employees, hoping workers would go for it because of the added choice and greater freedom to use the machines for personal tasks.

But Tauschek says while employees may like the flexibility of choosing their hardware and operating system, there are problems with the idea, particularly for larger companies. Letting employees choose their PCs leads to a dog's breakfast of different computers that the IT department has to support. And if employees can install whatever software they like, their employers have to draw a line between which problems the company's internal help desk will assist with and which they won't.

To deal with some of these issues, Kraft requires employees in its program to purchase their own hardware maintenance plans covering repairs, says Badieux.

There are also differences between the computers that businesses usually buy and the consumer models at local electronics stores, adds Steve Kleynhans, a Toronto-based vice-president with Gartner Group Inc., an IT consulting firm based in Stamford, Conn. "A lot of consumer [notebook] PCs aren't up to snuff when compared to corporate PCs. They may have bigger screens, but their battery life may not be sufficient."

Software licensing is another potential headache, Kleynhans says. Large organizations usually buy software in bulk, leading to volume discounts, and it's typically much more expensive to buy licences individually. And there can also be questions surrounding who owns the hardware and software if an employee leaves the company, for example. "If I don't own the PC, who owns the licences for the software?"

In Kraft's case, the employee owns the Microsoft Office suite supplied with the PC, while other work-related software runs on company servers and belongs to Kraft.

Finding the right fit

Kleynhans says it makes sense for professionals working on contract to own their own PCs. The idea may also work well for high-tech companies like Microsoft because their employees are technically sophisticated enough to make good choices and probably need relatively little support, and often have strong preferences about the computers they use. 

Tauschek agrees — but, he says that, "for the average employee, my guess is that this is more of a burden than a benefit."

One possible way around many of the problems is to run corporate software on a central computer server, with the employee-owned PC serving as what IT people call a "thin client." No company software or data is stored on the PC, and any machine will do as long as it can connect to a network and communicate with the company servers.

Citrix Systems is one company selling software to do this kind of thing, and that is no doubt a major reason why the company has implemented its own bring your own computer program. "Citrix is drinking their own champagne," says Tauschek.

If more organizations move to cloud computing — the much-hyped trend in which software can run on one or more servers in a networked "cloud" and be used from any desktop or laptop device connected to that network — the employee-owned PC idea might have legs, Tauschek and Kleynhans agree. The fact that some of its software runs this way probably made it easier for Kraft to try a bring your own computer program.

Others will be watching its experience with interest.