Microsoft has joined with some of its big technology clients to fill showrooms in Malvern and 26 other business centers around the globe with fancy, elegant gadgets and applications designed to make offices obsolete.
Think. for example, of iPads as big as your wall or as accessible as your home TV screen, where colleagues, clients, and customers can share notes, data, and links, and design and promote projects, in real time.
A Canadian company, Smart Technologies, has developed generations of these interactive whiteboards over the last 20 years. Microsoft is promoting them, along with servers from Hewlett Packard, Nokia phones, RedPrairie work-tracking software, and other enablers of the nomadic, smartphone-based business life, through its "Global Alliance," says William Emmert, "technology architect" and head of the Malvern site.
Officially Microsoft Technology Center - Philadelphia, the chain of showrooms, conference rooms, and souped-up home offices Emmert manages, serves as a training center and showcase for tech products sold to Microsoft's big local clients - drugmakers, Comcast, Verizon - and smaller firms with national or global aspirations.
While Emmert tells how this co-marketing is supposed to boost Microsoft sales of its own business software, Smart's local rep, Phoenixville-based Jon Friscia, demonstrates his product by printing in bright special pens on the five 70-inch Smart boards that line the room. The board turns his scrawl into print, his crayon arrows to flow charts. He plugs in a memory stick, and it picks the highlights from the demonstration and forwards them. Nobody has to take notes or catalog slides into e-mail attachments.
"We set up this collaborative environment, so customers can see and understand our platform, whilc gaining access to our world-class partners," says Emmert.
These products and services, once sold to headquarters IT bosses, is going mass market. In Smart's case, for example, you don't even need to buy special high-pixel screens anymore: "The interactive overlay can turn any LCD screen into an interactive workspace," Emmert said. "We've got engineers for small manufacturing facilities up the Suquehanna using these systems to spread autoCAD drawings to their teams. Just write on the board and your remote office shows up here."
How does Microsoft's Malvern landlord, Liberty Property Trust, feel about this?
It's one reason you don't see a lot of giant office projects getting built these days, says John Gattuso, regional director for Philadelphia-based Liberty. Liberty, whose chief executive, William P. Hankowsky, is an owner of The Inquirer, has been easing out of the suburban office business that made it a national landlord. In the latest of a series of sales, Liberty last week sold 49 mostly suburban office sites in five states, including four in Marlton, along the New Jersey 73 corridor east of Philadelphia.
It's not just that slow roads, high rents, and fast gadgets have pushed bosses to base skilled workers at home or in their cars. Some top executives have also been disappointed that pleasant suburban sites haven't produced the creative thinking big companies need, Gattuso told me.
Liberty these days is focusing more on automated warehouses - and on smaller, smarter office centers like the Glaxo complex it's building off I-95 in South Philadelphia, a 200,000-square-foot site that replaces the drugmaker's half-empty 800,000-square-foot complex in Center City. The new building with its angular and curved walls is more a mother ship for a casually tethered workforce than a paper factory like yesterday's office campus. It's a way for Liberty to show it has space to offer the next corporate generation.
Microsoft has decentralized its own workforce. While 140 people still show up for work at its Malvern regional office, which focuses on drug and communications clients, a comparable number of field workers now labor independently in the region. "We're a good representation of the new business model," Emmert said. "The kind of work people do, increasingly, if you can meet your commitments and only have to show up 10 hours a week, it's great. If employees are responsible, it will show up in their work," digitally tracked.
"People love coming into this facility, using it, having meetings here," Emmert added. And not having to go there every working day.
Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.