Smartphones with cameras and global positioning systems (GPS) built in. Handheld audio and video players. USB thumb drives. Instant messaging (IM). Social networking sites and tools. What do these things have in common? They're all technologies that were originally targeted at consumers, and are now infiltrating the enterprise at accelerating and -- to some IT managers -- alarming rates.
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After all, the unsanctioned and unsupervised use of consumer technologies in business can cause headaches galore. There are the security issues of users bringing in devices like tiny USB drives and walking off the premises with valuable corporate data; the messaging snafus of trying to provide remote access to the corporate network of unapproved smartphones; and the legal ramifications if employee blogging gets out of control.
But the problems that arise from consumer technologies in business also create significant opportunities for value-added resellers (VARs) and IT solution providers.
Charlie Thomas, director of corporate sales for TekServe, in New York, points to a medical research facility that decided to use Apple's iChat, which enables text, audio or video "chatting" for Mac users, to facilitate meetings.
"This client had eight buildings scattered throughout the New York metropolitan area, and its staff's time is very valuable," Thomas said. Rather than taking the subway or a cab to get together with colleagues, the medical professionals on staff now hold video meetings from their desktops. "The opportunity for us was to help them make the proper selection of hardware, and set up the iChat capability for them," he said.
Jennifer Mazzanti, president of eMazzanti, a Hoboken, N.J.-based VAR, sees a lot of social networking activity in businesses -- a trend that is broadening her firm's revenue stream. "Our clients are looking for ways to market themselves and meet business partners," she said. "We can help them understand how best to use these technologies to achieve their goals."
Wanted: VARs to implement consumer technologies in businesses
Indeed, the No. 1 opportunity for solution providers is to act as trusted advisors who can help companies not only implement the technologies, but formulate policies -- particularly security policies -- governing appropriate use of consumer technologies in business settings, said Michael Halperin, vice president of technology for Akibia, an IT services provider based in Westborough, Mass.
"We can help them find ways to keep their data and networks secure while still giving their users enough flexibility to do their jobs and keep the organization competitive," Halperin said. A big part of that is assessing risk. "We try and help them find a safe alternate solution to simply saying no to the latest gadget or software they have found useful at home," he said.
However, in some cases the trend toward consumer media can hurt VARs. Blame Google for the many users that have switched over to Gmail, Google Apps, Google Calendar and the like for personal use, and are now bringing these technologies into the enterprise, said Jordan Rosen, CEO of Lille Corp., a reseller based in Albany, N.Y. "All the functionality is there, and some companies are actually eliminating their Exchange servers and switching their company over to Google's offerings," he said, admitting he has transitioned his own company over to Google-based applications.
"When companies switch over to that kind of free or very cheap hosted software that is popular at home, it's difficult for us to have a conversation about what we can do for them," Mazzanti pointed out.
Consumer technology falls into three basic categories, according to Alok Saxena, vice president of IT for Artech Information Systems, a VAR based in Cedar Knolls, N.J.
"There's the consumer technology, like smartphones and IM, which we have recognized as being beneficial to businesses," Saxena said. "Then there are the technologies that are neutral -- they neither help nor harm the enterprise." Technologies that fall into this category include Internet radio, and -- depending on network bandwidth and the appropriateness of the content -- video downloads. For the most part, products in this category are not supported by IT, but neither are they banned, he said. Finally, there are the consumer technologies that businesses are choosing to block altogether.
"In our case, we decided not to support blogging. Not only did we not want to devote IT resources to it, but we decided for legal reasons we didn't want our workers putting their opinions out there," he said.
Indeed the discussion about consumer tech is a microcosm of a much larger one: whether in the future IT is going to have to relinquish control almost entirely to users.
Michael Oh was attending an industry analyst briefing when this subject arose. "An IT manager from a large enterprise said he was shifting his firm's technology support philosophy to hand over control to the users themselves. "He said, 'You bring it in, we'll make it work,'" said Oh, CEO of Tech Superpowers in Boston. "That's revolutionary, game-changing thinking."
The briefing took place nine months ago, and since then, Oh has seen more and more of his enterprise customers move in this direction. "In some cases, users want to bring in their own laptops that they've bought for home use, and companies are hooking them up to the network. Although this raises security issues -- issues that resellers can help them solve, by the way -- it saves companies from having to buy the hardware themselves, so they come out ahead," Oh said.