The increasingly blurry line between consumer and business technology can be a boon for smaller companies, provided you watch out for the downside.
Consumerization isn't exactly new, but the trend appears to have picked up momentum among smaller businesses and the technology vendors that target them.
Exhibit A: Apple recently launched Joint Venture, a tech support plan for small businesses. The covered products -- Mac, iPad, and iPhone -- are the very same ones plucked off the shelves by consumer hands. But, at $499 for support of five systems, Joint Venture is clearly a business service. Why is Apple getting into the IT support game for small businesses?
"There is definitely a growing market of [small businesses] out there with Apple products," said Laurie McCabe, partner at the SMB Group, in an interview. "Apple is saying: 'Hunh, you know, we really kind of cater to the consumer or prosumer. Now let's think about how can we get our small businesses that are using Apple products more productive and more efficient.'"
The IT industry provides plenty of examples, both new and not-so-new, of consumerization at work inside small and midsize businesses. Since the start of 2011, two different storage companies with clear consumer heritages -- Drobo and Promise -- moved into the SMB market with new products. Responding to a direct question as to why Drobo was launching a business line, VP of marketing Kevin Epstein told me: "Our customers are dragging us in." Epstein said at the time that Drobo's research had found thousands of its "consumer" customers were actually SMB users who'd brought the devices into the workplace.
Or, look at Dell: Though the company builds its PCs in market-specific lineups such as Vostro, a single product development team handles both consumer and small business. Mark Gambill, vice president of marketing for consumer, small and medium business at Dell, notes that younger generations have entered the workplace hard-wired for certain technology -- the companies that seize upon that can realize a competitive advantage in the labor market.
"You had this emerging workforce coming into the marketplace with significant expectations around technology and tools," Gambill said in a recent interview. "If I want to attract the best and brightest, then my technology has to be able to speak to their needs. "
Gambill also said product design -- even if it ultimately takes a backseat to price and functionality with business buyers -- is an increasing factor. "Style is playing a more significant role in how people choose technology," he said. "More and more companies are having a bit more influence around: What does it look like? I just don't want a black, ugly laptop."
So, is consumerization good for SMBs? Yes, with a noticeable asterisk: Just as the lines between business and consumer can be blurred, so too can the results. There are some tangible benefits to be had: Pricing, access, hiring advantages, and richer feature sets top my list.
On the feature front, unified development teams like Dell's can lead to cross-over enhancements. While you might not want to outfit your SMB with PCs built for gamers, you're probably not going to complain if gaming-driven improvements in graphics or processing speeds make their way into your business machines, for example.
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