Infrastructure // Unified Communications
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12/22/2011
05:57 PM
Kurt Marko
Kurt Marko
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Holiday Fun With Personal Collaboration

Use your free time to explore new consumer-driven products--and maybe pick up some valuable IT skills.

Reviewing my recent collaboration columns, I noticed a recurring theme: our consumer-driven IT ecosystem. I can hear the groans from crusty IT pros expecting yet another paean to the consumerization of IT, but don't click the "back" button just yet. There are products out there that can help you do your job better. And what better time to focus on consumerization than our annual festival of materialism?

In the realm of collaboration, the past year has seen the Facebook model of social networks, blog-like walls, and comment streams emerge as the de facto standard user interface. Just as the Mac's "borrowed" desktop/folder metaphor won the OS interface battle and Microsoft Word set the standard for every other word processor, so, too, the "Facebook look" has become what people expect when they interact with online peers--whether it's sharing a restaurant review with personal friends or asking co-workers for feedback on a project plan. If you're not one of the 800 million active Facebook users, maybe it's time to get a feel for how 21st century collaboration works. Better yet, sign up for one of the free (or free trial) business- and project-oriented collaboration sites, such as Asana, Basecamp, Cohuman, Podio, or Zoho, and see how this usage metaphor translates to projects, CRM, task lists, and content management.

Another collaboration domain where consumer services have zoomed past their enterprise counterparts is real-time audio and (especially) video communication. Sure, businesses have had conference calling for years, but these were always more like prescheduled phone calls than impromptu online meet-ups. Never has it been easier to strike up a conversation with a group of friends or colleagues, stream a webcam, and even share your desktop. Skype is still (at least until Microsoft ruins it) the poster child for real-time communications, but Google Chat has mimicked most of its features and one-ups Skype by still offering free calling to the U.S. and Canada.

While Skype emerged from a PC-as-communications-hub era, a new generation of smartphone apps, such as Apple's FaceTime, Fring, Nimbuzz, and Tango, completely unshackled from the desktop, enable free audio and video calling directly from your smartphone. So here are a few ideas on how to kill time between an endless string of holiday reruns, meaningless bowl games, and trips to the candy jar: Fire up one of these apps, look up a long-lost classmate, and see what your next-generation enterprise videoconferencing system might look like.

If person-to-person conversations are too passe, take a crack at online conferencing. Google+ Hangouts and Vokle are handy ways to create a virtual lounge for spontaneous chats with friends. Several services offer free Web conferencing complete with an audio bridge and application or screen sharing, perfect for a slideshow of your Christmas haul. Although these take a bit of setup work, particularly if you're using video, they provide an excellent and inexpensive (only your time) way to check out the myriad ways SaaS apps are exploiting the collision of ubiquitous broadband, mobile devices, and cloud-based infrastructure to deliver innovative real-time collaboration services.

Another holiday chore, er, tradition, for most IT people is playing technical support specialist for less tech-savvy relatives (aka n00bs) as they bumble through setting up their latest electronic gadgets, which this year will almost certainly include a smartphone and/or tablet. You'll save yourself time and frustration later on by getting Aunt Millie's new iPad or Android phone set up securely the first time; otherwise you just may get a frantic call in a few months once she sees the data charges her hacked device has racked up by spewing botnet-generated spam or premium-rate text messages. And while Apple's curated application distribution significantly mitigates these risks, it's not immune to drive-by jailbreaking, man-in-the-middle Wi-Fi sniffing, or being left in the backseat of a cab, so iPhone aficionados shouldn't be complacent. Before bidding your clueless relatives adieu for another year, review the tips in this column and spend a few minutes locking down their new mobile toys.

If all this sounds like the sort of vacation reading list your sixth-grade teacher handed out to keep you from forgetting everything you were supposed to have learned all semester, just remember, a body can take only so much channel surfing and cookie munching. Admit it, you love playing with tech, and polishing your Facebook feed and firing up a video chat are a whole lot more fun than reconfiguring a router or setting up some new SAN volumes. Besides, you'll come back to the data center drudgery of daily firefights and monotonous project meetings with a better sense of the changing collaboration landscape being shaped by mobile devices as well as the vulnerabilities they face and risks they present--in sum, a preview of the coming enterprise communications and collaboration environment.

Merry Christmas and let the hacking begin.

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