The consumerization of IT has been a hot topic for the past few years, as products like Jive SBS and IBM Lotus Connections bring social networking into the enterprise and Apple iPhones replace BlackBerries for legions of corporate workers. It has become something of a truism that innovation now starts in the consumer sectors and then trickles up to the enterprise. It’s an inversion of the bottom down trickle from business, the military and academia that brought us desktop computers, mobile phones, the Internet and e-mail.
The truth is that there’s a sort of interplay between enterprise technology and consumer technology, and it’s unfair to say that innovation comes from only one direction.
Friendster, which arguably started the social networking trend that seems to have peaked with Facebook, is said to have been influenced by Ryze, a business social network that was a predecessor of LinkedIn. Ryze wasn’t an internal collaboration tool like Lotus Connections, and the first social network was probably the consumer focused SixDegrees. But business-to-business was quite early to the social networking party.
Or consider this 2003 article on social software (that’s what we called social media back then) from the Mercury News. Enterprise wiki platform Socialtext (possibly the first enterprise 2.0 company) was actually mentioned along side the consumer oriented Meetup as an example of social software. Wikipedia was so new at the time that it wasn’t even mentioned as an example of a wiki. Although the wiki was created as a personal project by Ward Cunningham to share software design patterns, history suggests the development of the enterprise wiki and the personal/consumer wiki was more of a co-evolution than a case of consumerization.
And don’t forget that although the iPhone revolutionized smart phone interface design, smart phones (and WAP-enabled mobile phones) were first marketed by companies like Handspring and RIM as business tools. It’s hard to look at a modern household, with its desktops and laptops and smart phones, and possibly even some sort of network attached storage server for sharing media, and not think of it as a sort of enterprization.
Here are a few examples of how this ongoing dance is playing out, and the implications for the future.
From Business Intelligence to Personal Intelligence
From the world of business intelligence comes the quantification of self movement, which seeks to mine data to create actionable personal intelligence. Consumers are visualizing their finances with Mint. They’re looking for productivity patterns using Rescue Time. They’re optimizing their workouts with data they’ve stored in apps like Fitocracy and RunKeeper. More advanced self-quantifiers are employing sensors and other devices to analyze ever more self-generated data.
This sort of obsessive tracking has long been standard practice in business, and it’s being revolutionized social media and big data. Expect no less of a revolution in consumer markets as tech trends like solid state storage, in-memory analytics and Apache Hadoop enable new services for analyzing your own behavior.
Enterprise finance will never be as simple as personal finance, but expect the bar for financial analysis tools to be raised by the spread of simple consumer tools. Easier BI has become something of a holy grail among enterprise vendors, and the consumer sector may yield UI innovation breakthroughs.
Group Messaging Goes Consumer
BlackBerry Messenger started as a tool for business users to keep in secure, instant contact without running up their SMS bills. But it eventually became popular with young people, especially in the UK where the tool was used by rioters last summer.
The possibility of BlackBerry Messenger coming to other platform has been rumored (and there are some alleged screenshots floating around), but in the meantime a slew of new cross-platform group messaging applications have become available for smartphones, including GroupMe, Kik and Beluga. Beluga was acquired by Facebook, which shut the service down and put the team to work on Facebook Messenger.
Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a clear candidate for a cross-platform, enterprise-grade alternative to BlackBerry Messenger yet. That’s good news for RIM, if the company can get its act together in time (the app still isn’t available for the PlayBook, so don’t hold your breath for an Android/iOS version). But it’s also a big opportunity in the mobile enterprise market.
Personal Device Security
Personal device management is another consumer trend to come out of RIM. The BlackBerry Enterprise Server is still the gold standard for mobile device security in the corporate world, and now RIM is offering a consumer version of the service called BlackBerry Protect, which gives consumers the ability to backup information, find lost devices, remotely wipe data and manage multiple devices from the same console. But once again, there are other companies that have beat RIM to the consumer market. For example Lookout and SmrtGuard offer a security solution for Android, BlackBerry and iOS which includes backup and remote wipe.
This circles back to enterprise IT, and to the cloud identity issue, as employees bring their own devices into work. RIM announced that it will soon offer a product called Mobile Fusion, an enterprise security server for Android and iOS devices. But again it’s been slow to market and has opened the playing field to competitors such as Good Technology (which depends in part on technology licensed from RIM), MobileIron, Zenprise and Sybase (now owned by SAP).
Where RIM has an opportunity is in the creation of a smooth continuity between personal device security (via BlackBerry Protect) and enterprise device security (via a cloud hosted Mobile Fusion). Between this possibility and RIM’s acquisition of Gist, the company could be a real player in the identity wars.
Next? BPM and DevOps
When Android App Inventor was released last year I hoped it would be a break through a point-and-click development (sometimes also called “citizen programming“). The idea of teaching programming with simple visual tools goes back to at least Logo, but Google App Inventor promised to enable normal people to build useful mobile apps and share them in the Android App Market. Unfortunately, Google closed the project down this year. It did open source the code, so it may end up still being useful for educators, but it does seem at this point to be another failed experiment.
There is at least one place other than education that visual programming has thrived: enterprise business process management (BPM) tools. Tools from vendors like Pegasystems enable business users without computer science backgrounds to build applications that solve business problems. Force.com and JackBe have taken this idea further and enabled users to share applications using the app market model. These tools (along with multimedia tools like QuartzComposer and MAX/MSP, which have proven popular with artists) prove that point-and-click app development can be done, but the idea has yet to really hit the mainstream.
But maybe making automation/scripting mainstream is the next step before making programming mainstream. ifttt (if this, then that) came out of beta recently and topped Lifehacker’s list of underhyped applications. It’s a bit like shell scripting for the Web. Lots of the premade “recipes” are designed to help you backup data stored on the Web. It actually reminds me more of the DevOps world and tools like Chef and PowerShell than it does of BPM.
Along these lines, there’s also Tasker, an automation app for Android that has a strong following among power users.
These sorts of tools may never take off with mainstream users who just want to use Facebook and simple iPhone apps. But they certainly open some intriguing opportunities, and make becoming a “power user” easier than ever.
The upside for the enterprise? These sorts of tools could help prepare non-technical employees to think about BPM, programming and automation in ways that they otherwise would not have.
The Big Picture
Each of these trends – quantification of self, group messaging and personal device security – bring enterprise style tools are changing the ways that individuals solve problems, from personal finance to fitness to coordination to productivity. In addition to the possibility of finding new innovative ways to build and structure enterprise applications, the enterprization of the consumer also presents individuals with new ways to think about solving problems, and these may soon trickle up into the enterprise.