Switched On: Digital life vs. digital work

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

Microsoft designed Windows Vista to be the center of consumers' digital lives. The operating system supports myriad ways to store, organize and retrieve personal and premium content and opens the door to a nearly endless array of capabilities via add-on software. Powerful ultra mobile PCs such as the OQO Model 02 tantalize us with rich centralized access to nearly any digital resource.

Unfortunately, not everyone can abide by the role of the PCs as open platforms for creativity and customization. Among them are IT professionals responsible for ensuring the reliability and security of a corporate tool. Sometimes, strict controls aren't simply a matter of corporate fiat. PC support staff in government, healthcare and financial services may need to impose PC restrictions to comply with the law. For such scenarios, Microsoft builds administrative controls into Vista Enterprise to keep appropriate resources from leaving a PC and inappropriate software and content from getting on it.

In a subtle nod to life-work crossover, Microsoft offers Windows Vista Ultimate, which blends the premium version of its consumer operating system with some business-oriented features such as faxing. However, Vista Ultimate is really more about one-stop shopping for features in a premium-priced configuration and less about resolving the struggle for control between individual and enterprise.

Therefore, for the foreseeable future, many who use work PCs as a platform (as opposed to primarily data entry terminals) will likely continue to use two computers – a relatively managed one for digital work and a personal one for their digital life. Yet, there are tools to help bridge the gap.

Remote access products ranging from stalwart pcAnywhere and the cross-platform Timbuktu to newer hosted services such as GoToMyPC and LogMeIn allow you to access your often-remote home PC from your work PC. But even over broadband connections, the performance isn't close to a local experience and there may be screen resolution issues to manage. Orb lets you get at your PC media bypassing much of the file structure tyranny. And there's also Avvenu, a handy free service invaluable for grabbing that quick file you left on the other computer.

Evolving from products that facilitate using portable Windows applications on portable hard drives or flash drives, MojoPac creates a separate Windows environment from which many Windows applications can run. The promise is you can take your digital life with you, leeching off host PCs wherever they may be available. The challenge is that they're often not. Many public PCs, for example, are secured (like business PCs) so as not to allow MojoPac to run, but the software could be useful if you have regular access to a semi-secure environment and want to easily switch between digital work and digital life without jeopardizing the configuration for the former.

Full-blown virtualization products such as Virtual PC from Microsoft and VMware from enterprise storage giant EMC may allow It departments to address the issue from the other direction -- creating secure configurations that can be installed on users' PCs but which operate immune from most of their personal software.

Yet, as long as PCs remain corporate purchases, it's unlikely that any seamless solution will emerge. Perhaps this is why cell phones – more frequently a personal purchase – are often portrayed as the true future platform of consumers' digital lives. Prepare for the digital liberation of trading in the shackles of IT for those of the wireless operator.

Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at