If you know me, you already know one of my points about a few of the sessions that in a well-intentioned and generally thorough way address the question of “consumer” technologies in the enterprise. That’s the C-word itself. Our employees are not gullets that crap cash, and talking about technology expectations set by “consumer-grade” services like Google, desktop search, and IM that are all actually free brings some real cognitive conflict. How can it be consumer technology if there is no money changing hands?
The Docs (Searls and Weinberger) et al have done us a tremendous service in making us aware of the naming problem that the “consumer” label brings. I’m not sure they’ve done a good job of identifying alternative labels. “Producer” has been floated in the case of bloggers and other user-authored media creators, but it doesn’t generalize well; “human being” and “citizen” have the opposite problem—they’re too general. From a technology perspective, is there a useful way to talk about technologies that stand in opposition to the enterprise central-control model that doesn’t use the C word?
This is, I think, an important question. Anyone who has been around “consumer” driven businesses knows it can be like pulling teeth to get them to acknowledge that consumers are the same people who are inside enterprises, just seen at different times. And some of it has to do with the label. If IT organizations are to take “consumer” technologies seriously, as the Gartner mavericks suggest that they should, maybe finding a different word is a good starting point. The session I just was in, led by David Smith and Tom Austin, indirectly suggested one alternative: open market technologies. But of course this suggests that enterprise technologies are not open market.
The question of what to call it (reluctantly) put aside, the idea that systematically bringing non-enterprise technologies inside the enterprise could drive real benefits—not just to the end user but to the enterprise as a whole—is I think worth taking seriously. The speakers cited a case study of a company (which I think was Ford) which hardened its internal systems, then piloted an approach in which rather than providing a corporate desktop it gave its users a stipend with which they could buy their own—shifting the burden of administering and supporting the desktop to the end user, but also allowing them to take advantage of rapidly shifting consumer technology. They also discuss possible worlds where the base OS on an office machine is a consumer OS, and that the standard corporate desktop runs as an image inside a virtualization environment. How silly it is, they point out, to be a consumer service like Google or Ebay and to say that you can’t do business with me unless you have an approved, hardened browser that I provide and can guarantee is secure.
What I found interesting about all of these scenarios, and what they pointed out toward the end of the discussion, is that these trends could open the door for players like Apple—not iPods but Macs—to be dragged into the enterprise by end users who are comfortable and productive with them and can do most if not all of their jobs on them, once the users are given the leeway to provide their own desktop machine. Now that’s interesting.