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3/10/2006
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Andy Dornan
Andy Dornan
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Impact Of Consumer Technology Hits Business World

Consumer technologies such as MP3 players, DVD drives, cell phones, and instant messaging are driving the innovation agenda. It's time for companies to stop ignoring or restricting personal tech and instead tap into that energy.

Every January, the new gadgets begin to show up in the office. After unwrapping shiny iPods, PDAs, and camera phones over the holidays, employees bring them to work. Then, goes the theory, they make bad decisions that threaten information security, like downloading a customer database into a BlackBerry address book or sending a snap- shot of a work buddy who happens to be standing in front of a product prototype. Sometimes these new gizmos are just so irresistible that employees raise the bar on their IT groups. They demand Wi-Fi, for instance, since their Linksys routers make life so much easier at home.

Here's some advice for IT departments: Get over it. Sure, consumer technology's momentum has reached a dizzying speed, but fighting it is futile and ignoring it means being left behind. A wiser approach is to focus on the opportunity consumer tech presents, both inside the company and out among customers. The first step is accepting that there's a power shift under way, with consumer tech setting the agenda.

When it comes to the evolution of Wi-Fi, cellular networks, Ethernet, storage networking, instant messaging, search, processors, and DVD drives, do you think technology vendors put businesses first? Fat chance. They're focused on the mass market, where the ability to download an Eminem music video to a cell phone is more important than a company's need for high-speed data transmission.

Tethered No More Linksys Router
Linksys Router: Irresistible
Impact: Linksys and its kind changed how business IT thought about wireless. Its plug-and-play wireless routers meant that for about $50, people could taste the freedom of roaming their homes with a laptop-and leave corporate networks insanely exposed to war drivers. IT got the message: Wireless won't be denied; we'll have to support it.

The shift is testing IT's control and role, but it also can drive innovation. The Apple iPod was intended to play music, but enterprising individuals have turned it into a tool for business and education--like med students using MP3 downloads to learn the sound of an irregular heartbeat. Instant messaging, which sneaked into the workplace via consumer online accounts, has been harnessed by stock brokers, lawyers, and other professionals who demand fast-paced communication.

Trinity Valley Electric Cooperative learned the importance of staying tuned into consumer technology from an elderly gentleman who raised his hand at one of its community meetings. "He asked if he could submit power-outage information through SMS," says Ian Fleming, IS manager for the utility, which serves 56,000 customers in eastern Texas. "It was a customer's idea, and it will actually save us money while improving service." Today, customers must call an 800 number. The new system will support text messages and E-mail, sending automated messages about when power will be restored.

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Take wireless E-mail. Today, it's pricey enough that either the company pays for a BlackBerry-type device and service, or they're used by only a handful of employees who can afford them. But what happens when they become as cheap as cell phones? Time to ban them--or support them on the network.

History shows that the intermingling of business and home technology doesn't always work. During the dot-com rush, Delta Air Lines, Ford, and Intel gave employees networked home PCs. The hope was that they would connect to the world over the Internet, spread the good word about their employers in their free time, and bring back to the company all they learned in cyberspace. The experiment ended up as an IT support nightmare, and even a tax liability for employees who had to report the cost of the PCs as income. All three companies canned the free PC programs within two years.

iPod Nano Ear-Budding Industry
iPod: The ear-canal sales channel
Impact: Apple's iPod has more than half the MP3-player market, letting employees carry 60 Gbytes of storage to the job-a potential IT headache. But the greatest impact comes from the iTunes Web service. ITunes proved the Internet could legally distribute music, too, selling its billionth song last month. It also let anyone offer free MP3 file downloads, making podcasting viable and giving everyone from politicians to marketers to IT gurus a platform, along with the challenge of having something to say worth hearing.

Today, management doesn't have to work to get employees to embrace a networked, digital world. At Korea's Samsung Electronics last year, fears about employees using camera phones at work and inadvertently transmitting company secrets prompted a ban on them in its semiconductor, flat panel, and electronics factories. And Samsung makes camera phones.

The fears are legitimate, but so is another risk: stifling the innovation that new technology can unleash. The rank and file are often the first to understand how new technology can transform a company. Remember that E-mail and Internet access were once considered too distracting for most workers.

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