09 February 2012 by Neil Logan
The need for businesses to increase productivity and cut costs has been the force driving innovation in the information technology industry since its inception. The first information technology companies made no secret of this fact. Indeed they were so proud to proclaim this fact and reassure us that they understood business they even put the world business in their company names.
Everything from the physical look and feel of the hardware to the first software packages sold were largely business driven. However, some of this business driven innovation has crossed over into the consumer world. Almost as soon as the PC-era began, companies sought to make them cheaper to sell to individual consumers as well as businesses giving birth to the video games industry to name only one.
Over recent years we've seen a reversal in this trend. Today innovation in information technology regularly emerges first in the consumer world and then crosses over into the business world.
Apple's re-emergence as a major player in the information technology market place came after it made a clear move directly into the consumer market place. Apple launched the iPod in late 2001. The device, a portable music player, was aimed fairly and squarely at consumers. At first some of the reviews were less than favourable, portable music players already existed and, when compared against those the first generation iPod was expensive and not as feature rich as some of the reviewers expected.
Prior to the iPod, portable music players were not sold in huge numbers. They were niche devices typically sold in electronics stores. Getting music onto the devices was not straightforward for someone who didn't know their USB from their MP3. The devices were utilitarian and definitely not consumer driven. With the iPod, Apple demonstrated that by focusing on usability and design, a niche device could be transformed into a mainstream consumer product.
However whilst the iPod was a huge success, it wasn't until the smartphone emerged that we really saw a consumer led product move into the business space. The term smartphone had been around for years prior to Apple releasing the first generation iPhone in early 2007. Microsoft, Symbian and several others had smartphone offerings but crucially these smartphones focused on business uses. Not until the iPhone did someone truly focus on the consumer.
The iPhone raised expectations as to what a smartphone should be. Users already using smartphones looked at these devices and realised that the iPhone was better. Despite being relatively expensive, the iPhone quickly became the smartphone of choice for many business users - becoming a huge commercial success.
Whilst the iPhone helped Apple become one of the most valuable companies in the world, its biggest impact is in being one of the products that heralded the arrival of what we've now come to call consumerisation.
As information technology now pervades every aspect of our lives, we see a blurring of the lines between the professional and the personal. Historically the only people who had a smartphone were business people. Today, most of the phones sold in theUK are smartphones. This year we will see worldwide annual smartphone sales exceeding PC sales. Smartphone sales are expected to exceed PC sales 5-to-1 by 2015. Tablet sales are also growing quickly.
It’s not only in the hardware market that consumerisation has had an effect. Google Docs is a web-based office productivity suite and data storage cloud service offered freely by Google. Primarily aimed at the consumer it has raised expectations as to what is possible in terms of office productivity products. Microsoft, the dominant force in the office productivity market place, was forced to react and released Microsoft Office 365 in summer 2011.
Consumerisation is one of the most significant trends affecting businesses today. Consumers are looking at the products and services they use in their personal lives and they want to use them in their professional lives. They want to be able to access their professional email in the same way they access their personal email. They are becoming frustrated that accessing their professional calendar and documents is not as simple as it is when they are using their consumer oriented service.
Many businesses and IT departments are struggling to come to terms with the fact that their users are increasingly demanding and knowledgeable. From a company perspective, allowing staff members to access potential sensitive email on a personal mobile device raises serious security concerns. Allowing staff to use their own consumer products increase the diversity of hardware in user presenting significant support challenges for already stretched IT departments. Rather than supporting standard hardware and software, IT departments will be forced to support a wide array of products and services. As a result many business and IT departments are attempting to prevent staff from using such product and services.
Businesses have traditionally viewed information technology as a private resource - something that is owned by the business for purely business use. The attitude is not tenable in the longer term. Staff want to use consumer oriented products and services to be more productive. Why should they be forced to come in to the office to work on a document over the weekend when they can do it from home? Why wait on that email arriving from head office when it will be delivered immediately to your personal mobile no matter where you are? It is inevitable that attempts to hold back the progress of consumerisation are doomed to fail.
Consumerisation offers all businesses the opportunity to leverage innovation in the consumer marketplace to help increase productivity and cut costs. Today many businesses buy PCs for use by staff for professional purposes only. This often results in staff being forced to purchase a second PC for their own use. A business who embraces consumerisation may choose to relax the rules on professional use and provide a PC allowance rather than buying one. This would allow staff to contribute some personal finance to buy the PC that works both for professional and personal use saving money for both the business and the consumer. A similar attitude to smartphones and tablets could also be adopted.
However, it is consumer services that offer the biggest opportunities. By utilizing cloud-based email and office productivity services, businesses could eliminate capital expenditure costs and reduce operational costs. Cloud-based information storage services could offer similar benefits.
Consumerisation is already a huge force within information technology and the quicker each business acknowledges this the better. Consumerisation offers the chance to increase productivity and reduce costs but comes at a cost. Whilst security and support concerns are real, business and IT departments cannot ignore consumerisation. Consumerisation is being driven from the ground up, and as a result efforts to contain its impact will likely fail in the long term.
Information technology pervades many aspects of our lives. As a result the lines between to personal and the professional are being blurred. Consumerisation is the natural consequence.