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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.
CareGroup Health System, which operates six Boston-area hospitals, is developing a system that lets doctors specify how they want to get alerts about time-sensitive information, such as a bad lab result or the status of a sick patient. That might include first sending a text message to a cell phone or PDA, and if there's no response within five minutes, sending an alert to a doctor's next device of choice, such as a pager.

Employee Impact, pie chartThe alert system requires some IT work. Mobile devices differ greatly in quality and capability, and by letting doctors choose their own, "there are no quality-of-service guarantees," says CareGroup CIO John Halamka. Most devices aren't designed to send receipts confirming that a doctor has acknowledged a message. CareGroup wants to ensure that happens for every read message, regardless of the device used.

Stealth Salespeople
Selling around the IT department is a vendor tradition: Go to a business-unit manager and make the case. Now consumer tech companies are taking a whole new approach: Get employees hooked in their personal lives, then move in for the business.

Microsoft has relied on this strategy for years by giving its software away to schools so people arrive in the workforce literate on Windows. Now service providers and hardware companies are adopting that approach. "We go out and appeal to end users who will bring these technologies into the workplace," says Brian Curry, VP of premium and subscription services at America Online. AOL is launching a paid business IM service--a move it tried unsuccessfully once before, proving consumer interest isn't always enough.

Digital Life bar chartEveryone loves Google, though it hasn't been able to convert that affection into many business dollars. But it's trying with its search appliance and the business version of its Desktop Search software. "Employees are very excited that search works just like it does on Google," says Dave Girouard, general manager of the company's enterprise division. Google also is beta testing a business version of its Gmail service, letting organizations keep their own domain name. Google, with its loyal search following, will offer a good test for just how effective the lead-with-the-consumer approach can be. It backfired a bit on Desktop Search: The initial release raised concerns about the security of its Search Across Computers functions, which now can be turned off remotely in the business version. But it left the kind of stain that makes IT pros wary.

Even companies that sell only to businesses are realizing they must appeal to the same needs as their consumer competitors do. Research In Motion originally designed the BlackBerry to handle only plain text: IT departments could issue them to employees safe in the knowledge that no one could run up a phone bill or surf the Web. Not anymore. "A business user is starting to see his BlackBerry as not just a business tool but also as a lifestyle tool," says Jeff McDowell, director of RIM's Alliance Program. "He uses it for sales-force automation, but he also wants the ring tones, to play a game, and to get driving directions."

AOL's business IM service is intended to compete with Lotus Sametime and Microsoft Communications Server, as companies need more sophisticated IM for auditing and regulatory compliance purposes. AOL hopes that hosted IM will help position it as a go-to company for hosting other applications, such as Office apps, E-mail, wikis, and blogs, in partnership with Google.

Consumer providers have a huge advantage, Girouard says. "Consumer applications tend to have a much better, more pleasing, user-focused interface," he says. That's because they've survived fickle consumer tastes, whereas business users must take what they get.

But employees won't automatically take what they get anymore. And neither will your customers, as both bring expectations of Web experiences formed on the very best consumer Web sites and technologies to their jobs and business dealings.

Consumer tech's relentless pressure can be a threat to traditional IT vendors. And it can be a huge opportunity to manage, embrace, and nurture. What it can't be is ignored.

--with Thomas Claburn, Elena Malykhina, and Marianne Kolbasuk McGee