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CES Spotlights The Consumer Effect

Those of us who cover enterprise IT don't often describe computers as sexy, snazzy fashion accessories, but that seems to be the way the technology industry is moving these days.

Those of us who cover enterprise IT don't often describe computers as sexy, snazzy fashion accessories, but that seems to be the way the technology industry is moving these days.The growing presence of computers, computer software, products that use computers, and wireless at the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show, Jan. 7-10 in Las Vegas, is evidence that consumers are driving the technology market as much as conservative businesses.

Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Research In Motion, and even a few Linux companies will have significant presences at this year's CES, with high-profile keynotes by Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang. This isn't just a television and stereo show any more.

Indeed, it seems everything's being computerized or at least influenced by the computer market. There'll be a remote control that can display e-mail notifications, and Sony's PlayStation Portable is getting VoIP capabilities via Skype. OpenMoko will show off a Linux-based smartphone. Microsoft's Windows Media Center is turning our TVs into computers, and Windows Home Server has the potential to wire our houses like never before.

Not only are consumer electronics increasingly computerized, they're also having a tremendous influence on design. Though Apple has been turning consumer electronics into an art form for at least a decade, other manufacturers and companies are now attempting to do so as well. Take Lenovo, which has continued selling ThinkPads to the business world. The company's now getting into the consumer market in a big way with a sleek new laptop that it will show off at CES.

Even the marketing speaks directly to the computer as a consumer fashion accessory rather than simply a business necessity. HP is pitching its new computers as "functional works of art" designed for the "high-definition lifestyle." Dell has "stylish, head-turning displays." As NPD Group analyst Steve Baker told my colleague Antone Gonsalves, "You'll hear more and more about personalization and design, and a lot less about RAM and how fast the processor is."

IT managers write this shift off at their own peril. Just as administrators have been overwhelmed by requests for BlackBerrys, so too will they for iPhones and other smartphones. And it won't stop there. Consumers are and will be demanding the style and ease of use that they get from their own computers and software. We're in an era where the traditional view of enterprise technology as the catalyst for new development is often flipped on its head, and that's not going away any time soon.

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