When the iPad Is the Only Computer Your Employees Need—or Want

Look around you. If you're at home, you're probably surrounded by technology that has changed the way you communicate and get information. And you aren't just using these technologies at home—increasingly you're depending on them at work.

The signs are everywhere. It's in that Facebook update of a co-worker you just read, that e-mail you just sent from Hotmail on your work PC, or that instructional video you watched on YouTube. It's in the smartphones that many of your colleagues are using to take work calls, check office e-mail, and do research—even if they bought the iPhone or Android-powered device with their own money. It's no wonder that, according to Cisco Systems (CSCO), consumer services are expected to account for 87 percent of all global Internet traffic by 2014.

Why is enterprise technology—the kind your employer has always provided—being eclipsed by products your kids use? To begin with, consumer technologies are more fun, more intuitive—and better for what people actually want to do. Facebook and Twitter, for example, provide a broader form of connectedness than e-mail. Microsoft (MSFT) and Google's (GOOG) mapping services keep adding higher resolution and more relevant information. YouTube has blasted a crater-size hole in the bulwark of broadcast media, and users upload about 24 hours' worth of videos to it every minute.

When was the last time an enterprise application created so much excitement that its growth could be measured every 60 seconds?

Three Trends

People might not have enjoyed working with corporate applications in the past, but they didn't have much to compare them to. Consumer devices and Internet services have changed all that. With applications that originate in the cloud, new features simply appear and become part of the system, without the user having to turn in his device, sit through training sessions, or worry about data compatibilities.

This is not just a swing of the pendulum—a temporary loss of stature until enterprise technology is again ascendant. Three trends suggest that consumer technology will extend its lead:

Economics. Between 2000 and 2008, according to data from the Consumer Electronics Assn., the average consumer increased spending on electronics devices by 7 percent a year. (The CEA hasn't released '09 numbers yet.) During that same period, IDC reported that companies reduced their IT hardware spending per employee by 3 percent a year. Not surprisingly, replacement cycles and purchases of operating systems follow the same trend, but more dramatically.

Scale. Within a year, Facebook says it could have nearly 700 million active users worldwide—some 10 percent of the world's population. Google, meanwhile, is planning for its estimated million servers to increase by a factor of 10, according to Google Fellow Jeff Dean. Enterprises operate on a much smaller scale; even big ones usually have no more than a couple of hundred thousand employees and 5,000 to 10,000 servers. So even if an enterprise tried to introduce some social-networking features into its internal communications systems, or tried to enable Google-like computing power, for instance, in the area of business intelligence, the experience would not match what people are used to on the public Internet.

Talent. The scale and resource advantage that exists on the consumer side is pushing the field's best minds toward consumer cloud challenges, not to the bread-and-butter problems of the enterprise. Computer science graduates these days don't spend their time on COBOL or C. They learn things like Hadoop, a framework for handling thousands of servers and petabytes of data. (Yahoo! (YHOO) is the largest user of Hadoop, while eBay (EBAY) and Facebook also use Hadoop for some services.)

Whither enterprise IT?

As recently as 20 years ago, a college graduate entering the workforce didn't have any expectations about the sorts of technology he would use. It's very different for today's new workers. "Why isn't this as fast, cheap, and easy to use as the tools I use outside work?" is the refrain. "If you can't match that, I'm just going to go ahead and use the tools that I already use in my personal life."

With all that's happening, it's easy to imagine a world, five years from now, where the ninth generation of Apple's (AAPL) iPhone is many employees' primary computer, and where the time that employees spend on enterprise systems is measured in minutes per day, not hours.

There is a hint of freedom in this view of the future—a secret thrill in having a way, finally, to escape the shackles of corporate technology policy. However, from a business standpoint, the presence of consumer technologies in the enterprise, and the increasing inclination of workers to "go rogue," are not unqualified pluses—by a long shot. These technologies create real risks around data security, scalability, cost management, and data governance. They complicate operations for the many big companies that still make extensive use of legacy systems.

Recommended Steps

Here are a few steps companies can take to start dealing with this issue:

1. Make decisions based on facts, not conjecture. Don't guess at the impact consumer technologies are having. Ask your people, for starters, but be sure to distinguish between their use of consumer technology on company time and their use of it to do company work.

2. End the blanket ban on Internet services. Employees are pretty much ignoring these bans on Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, and the like anyway. Look for ways to take advantage of these services in the workplace.

3. Embrace consumer applications as a recruitment tool. Some companies already use their support for open systems and Apple products to impress their flexibility upon job candidates.

4. Get out in front of the trend. Employees are already spending their own money on technology that benefits their employers. Pick a group, set some ground rules for a category of technology (smartphones, say), set a per-person budget, and see how people do with it.

5. Accept the inevitable. More company data will reside in the cloud, so update your IT and data policies accordingly.

Bottom line: Every company will have to explore ways to make use of the consumer technology revolution. The big strategic technology issue for the next decade will be how business leaders, CIOs, and IT departments adjust to a world that has gone in a new direction—that has gone a little rogue—and is not coming back.