The Rise of Consumer IT

Information technology was once the exclusive realm of the IT professional. Users were concerned not with technology issues but with technology results. If I had to pinpoint when that changed, I’d say it was probably with the launch of Windows 95. The hype that surrounded Microsoft’s marketing blitz gave consumers their first real exposure to the world of technology. Among those waiting in line all night to buy a copy were people who didn’t even own a computer. If you can sell an operating system to someone without a CPU, you have reached the ultimate in marketing, as far as I’m concerned.

Today, consumers have taken on many of the same roles as IT professionals — in fact, they are often working on more complicated tasks, such as streaming live video feeds from their homes to their phones. Dad is the CIO, Mom runs the help desk, and the kids are doing technical support and stringing Cat 5 wire around the house. If users are feeling more comfortable with IT, it’s because they’ve been thrust into these roles at home, where they are keeping technology running without the benefit of a dedicated IT department. They’re also more interested in technology issues — just check how many technology sites users visit from work.

Now granted, there’s a big difference in the things consumers are doing and the challenges that IT managers face, but consumer familiarity with technical tasks means that more users are technoliterate than ever before. And that means they’re going towant to express their opinions about how things should be done.

But users’ priorities are different from IT’s. For example, form factor is a major consideration for consumers. It was not that long ago that all PCs looked the same. PCs were PCs. If you wanted to market a server, you turned the PC on its side; if you needed a workstation, you painted it blue; and if you wanted a mobile computer, you just glued a handle on the top. Today, PCs are as much about fashion and style as they are about feeds and speeds.

This, of course, has ramifications for IT departments. IT is getting more requests for new laptops based on form and style, and not just from top executives. And increasingly, users are taking matters into their own hands and making technology purchases on their own. Whether it’s buying a cool new laptop to replace the organizational behemoth they were issued, installing a new operating system like Windows Vista, or purchasing a smart phone and asking IT to make it work with corporate e-mail, users are demanding more of a voice in IT decisions.

Yes, consumer technology is often unsuitable for business use, but IT organizations must begin to pay attention to what consumers want. The line that once existed between home and work is eroding, and people want to use personal devices to bridge that gap.

There is no one answer to how IT organizations will deal with this new reality. Different companies will exercise different degrees of control based on their comfort with the risks involved and the amount of individual device adoption they can absorb. But IT people need to not only recognize the changes in the landscape, but also remember whom they work for.

Michael Gartenberg is vice president and research director for the Personal Technology & Access and Custom Research groups at JupiterResearch in New York. Contact him at mgartenberg2@optonline.net. His weblog and RSS feed are at http://weblogs.jupiterresearch.com/analysts/gartenberg.

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