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Don't be surprised if one day your IT department sends out the following memo:

Dear Employee:

As part of our company's move to virtual desktop environments, the IT department will no longer buy laptops. Instead, employees will receive a $3,000 stipend to purchase a laptop, provided it meets our baseline memory and processing power requirements. It will be your machine to keep whether you stay with the company or not, but you will have responsibility for arranging for hardware support through your vendor.

Sincerely,

Your IT manager

Gartner is telling attendees at its annual data centre conference in Las Vegas this week that it expects companies to increasingly virtualise desktop environments to improve PC management and security. An offshoot of that trend may be a shift to employee ownership of the hardware.

IT managers at this conference say virtualising desktops -- and to a lesser extent shifting ownership to employees -- might make sense. A virtual PC environment could be more secure and less susceptible to conflicts and problems that arise after road warriors install their own productivity applications or games. They also believe they might save on software licensing costs if applications can be delivered as needed.

"I can see a drive toward virtual desktops," said Ben Davis, director of networks at Matria Healthcare, who added that virtual desktops would give IT departments tighter control over software. Today, he said, if an employee has a PC at home and access to the corporate network, "they basically have access to all of the network. With a virtual desktop, you can restrict that access."

But Davis isn't convinced that the technology available today matches the vision. "All I'm hearing is manufacturer hype," he said. "It's got to mature some."

Thomas Bittman, a Gartner analyst, believes many companies would rather manage a virtual environment on an employee's laptop and not worry about all the other applications that may have been loaded on a system. "It's a lot harder to lock down the hardware then it is a virtual machine," he said.

Bittman also believes that once a company makes the move to a virtual environment, it can explore the idea of giving workers ownership of their PCs.

Thomas O'Sullivan, operations manager at the Montana Department of Transportation (DOT), said he can see employee ownership of laptops coming. Those who now have handheld devices, for instance, want to be able to synchronise their devices with their work e-mail and applications and already use their own hardware for work.

"The laptop may be the next logical step," O'Sullivan said, noting that the DOT, which already virtualises servers, is investigating doing the same for PCs.

Dodd Vernon, operations manager at Walgreen, a pharmacy chain with 5,500 stores, said the virtualisation of laptop and desktop environments has been discussed. But he said his company will need to see the technology proven before it takes action.

Even so, Vernon said that he can see the appeal of individually owned PCs that log into virtual environments and that employee ownership would likely help with IT maintenance and staffing.

"I think there could be some cost benefit," Vernon said, adding that there might also be some resistance from users and that a company would likely have to provide stipends for hardware purchases.