The Consumerization of IT, 20 years later

You see a lot of articles these days about something called the “consumerization of IT”. This phrase most often means a corporate computing world where users access business applications and data through networks and devices that aren’t purchased and owned by the company. BYOD, or bring your own device they call it. In a world of $99 smartphones, nobody waits for the company to give them something they can purchase for themselves.

Worries about this brave new world come mostly from the enterprise side of the tech business, long used to creating unique and dedicated pieces of hardware, complex software mapped to arcane business rules, and locked down corporate laptop and desktop machines metered, monitored and managed to within their last CPU cycle. How are they going to control these devices and their employee owners?

As too often happens they are asking the wrong questions from fighting the last war. The issue isn’t about which device employees are going to use to access enterprise data, but how the company can create compelling applications to make that data visible, understandable and ultimately usable. The opportunity in the “consumerization of IT” isn’t in creating some new way to “lock down” and employee cell phone or track mobile web visits. The opportunity is to bring into the enterprise the kind of focus on simplicity, ease of use and rapid innovation that has dominated the mobile application market.

I’ve been around technology for a while. I worked for IBM as a programmer while still an undergraduate at Transylvania (yes, really look it up) but in 1990 moved to Atlanta to work for NCR. While there I got to work on a new product, integrating touch screens into the next generation of NCR’s point of sale terminals. In other words we made fancy cash registers. We were designing systems for the fast food industry which had high employee turnover and a desire to get new employees up to speed quickly. Simple, visual, touch driven system were a way to help staff focus on the customer and not on making the silly box do what they wanted.

Yet as expensive and unconventional as putting a touch screen on a cash register was, it was the software to utilize it that was the key. We built test applications to simulate a Pizza Hut or a McDonalds. We even built an SDK that we were going to sell to others who wanted to build touchscreen Windows apps. I went so far as to take Microsoft’s Pen Windows SDK (NCR even launched one of the first “tablets”) and build a specialized touchscreen/pen driver that would let users write on the screen with their fingers. I believed store owners could let consumers “sign” for their credit card purchases directly on the screen using their finger (familiar to anyone who’s used Square lately). Management couldn’t imagine why any retailer would want that, and besides they had credit card pin pad accessories they wanted to sell. This was 1992 and eventually I left for Microsoft.

The trip down memory lane was to make the point that enterprises have needed to deal with the “consumerization” of their IT products for decades. Employee turnover, a rapidly changing business climate and competition that is more than happy to grab your disappointed customer mean companies have to focus on enterprise ease of use. The opportunities, for those companies bold enough to seize them, are to find ways to engage their employees with enterprise applications that are as simple and compelling to use as Instagram or Vine, Tumblr or WordPress. Users are going to demand better enterprise applications. CIOs are going demand it because the return on investment of getting users up to speed and productive faster on tablets and touch enabled PCs will make it worthwhile.

The “consumerization of IT” isn’t a new thing at all. It’s just that we’re finally getting the devices capable of executing the vision some of us had 20 years ago.

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