The so-called “consumerization of the enterprise” is actually a misnomer. The other description used, “bring your own device,” or BYOD, is a more apt explanation: employees provide the end-user devices, which are basically consumer versions of enterprise devices.
When you look at the history of technology in business, consumer products rarely (if ever) become enterprise technologies. A lot of technology moves from enterprise/business to the consumer: the microwave oven (started at a commercial device for reheating/cooking), the VCR (based off of video tape technology used in the television industry), the personal computer (PC), the smartphone, etc. Not all of this technology moves into the consumer sphere, or does so in ways we expect. For example, the photocopier really only started to become common in the home in the late 1990s, appearing as the all-in-one inkjet printer/scanners we get for cheap today.
Virtually all of the computing technology we now use started off as enterprise devices. Mobile phones were corporate devices before they became the phones we know today. Smartphones were first available commercially in 1994 (the IBM Simon), but didn’t really start to gain ground until the Nokia Communicator came out in 1996. Some tend to think that Apple (and/or Google) invented the smartphone (pegging the date in 2007), but smartphones were a decade old by that point, and a common device in the corporate world. BlackBerry phones were everywhere in corporate North America, and Nokia smartphones were common in Western Europe and Asia.
The movement of technology from the enterprise to consumers goes beyond computing. Typewriters, adding machines, tabulating machines (driven by punchcards), and accurate scales all owe their initial existence to corporate use. The automobile is probably one of the few exceptions, starting as a consumer “toy” before someone turned them into trucks.
What we have seen is that “consumerization” has been largely limited to end-user devices, specifically phones, tablets, and occasionally laptops. In this area, the overlap makes some sense. Who wants to carry two smartphones? In the past, when mobile phones were expensive to own, they were largely the domain of the corporation. When they got cheap, and consumers started to buy their own, carrying two was common. And frankly, it wasn’t a big deal, because by this point, mobile phones had shrunk. They were also pretty easy to maintain: all most people kept up to date were the phone numbers.
But with smartphones being larger, and getting bigger almost annually, carrying two phones becomes a problem. The “maintenance” involved with two complete computers adds to the burden. It isn’t just phone numbers. It is contacts and calendars and notes and apps and wallpapers and photos and on and on.
End-user devices are one thing. Back-end services are another. The enterprise is still dependent on infrastructure technologies, particularly networks and servers that are still managed and controlled by IT. The idea that the IT department was going to go away was laughable. Who was going to manage and monitor things like mail servers or file servers? Sure, there are consumer equivalents, through things like Gmail, Dropbox, and others. But even those offer enterprise-grade services that are better managed by a central IT department.
Beyond that, the requirements for security and availability mean that core infrastructure is going to be closely monitored and managed. People have a hard enough time not clicking on links to malware in their browser or email. They simply can’t be trusted to keep the network secure, or to keep intruders out of the corporate website.
It isn’t surprising that some thought that enterprises would be “consumerized.” Consumer technologies share some important elements with enterprise technologies: they have to be easy to learn and use, they have to be reliable and they have to be secure. The difference is scale. Corporate technology needs to scale for a single organization. Consumer stuff needs to scale for “me,” but there are millions and millions of “me’s” out there. Consumers also care about aesthetics in ways that companies typically don’t.
Replacement is also different: people will hold on to technologies anywhere from a few months to many, many years. The standard deviation on that number is pretty big. Corporations, by and large, replace stuff every 2-3 years (at least in N. America and Western Europe), driven by the commonly-used 2-3 year lease. Some software will be used for decades, but the underlying hardware/infrastructure is refreshed fairly regularly.
Where the first real “consumerization of the enterprise,” or at least the first real blur of the two sides, might occur is wearable technology. The problem here is that, except for some health and fitness applications, the driver for what will make wearables “the future” is unclear.
A FitBit’s purpose is obvious. A smartwatch? That still feels a lot like a solution in search of a problem, and while Apple has stepped up the game in smartwatches (it is estimated that they sold more Apple Watches in the launch weekend as all smartwatch makers had sold for the prior 3 years, combined), the need isn’t entirely clear.
A smartphone was easy, because most people still use it as a phone. Since you can get them for free (on contract), the barrier to getting one is low. But a smartwatch, even a Pebble, is inordinately expensive when compared to a conventional watch, and we know that some models will be obsolete in a few years. But those devices cost as much as a watch that could last a century or more.
I’ve been using an Apple Watch for the last 6 months or so now, and while it has been an interesting experiment, I’m not sure I can say “you have to get one of these things,” There just isn’t a compelling reason for most people. Smartphones? No brainer, because at least it can make calls, and send/receive texts and emails. Smartwatch? Still looking for a good reason. An enterprise application for wearables? Like the smartwatch, not entirely sure that it’s worth the cost or that there is a problem that enterprises need solving.
We may continue to see some consumer technology trickle into the enterprise. But the supposed “land rush” of IT consumerization appears to have fizzled out. The obvious areas, mainly mobile devices, have been covered. Consumerization of infrastructure and the end of the IT department? Not likely. The jury is still out on how wearable technology will figure into our personal lives, let alone in the enterprise, and we may find that the real problems solved by wearables are driven more from the enterprise than from consumers. Until then, the need and the role for further consumerization isn’t clear nor obvious.
Geoff is the Co-Founder and Lead Technologist of bbotx. He is a successful entrepreneur and technologist with a deep background in mobile technology, secure large-scale system design and development, and global business.