Curt Frierson, Chief Technology Officer
As someone who makes a living in the IT industry, I always find new technologies interesting. Most of the time, my interest centers around the new capabilities an innovative technology promises, the efficiencies it can provide, or the cost savings it can deliver. Sometimes, however, a technology comes along that doesn’t really provide any of these benefits but catches on anyway. Such is the case with the tablet PC revolution today.
It seems that everyone has iPad fever these days. Chances are good that either you or a family member has some type of tablet device on their wish list this holiday season. The Apple iPad has generated most of the demand for tablet devices, but lower-priced alternatives such as the Kindle Fire are attracting customers as well. Most (if not all) of the capabilities of a tablet computer are available on a laptop. A tablet just provides a new form factor and a streamlined operating system.
So what is driving the “need” for all of these devices? I would argue that the primary driver for tablets is, basically, that they are REALLY cool! The manner and ease in which you can now consume content and install apps on an iPad is amazing, which is why the trend toward tablet devices has been catapulted by the consumer market. There was, originally, very little you could do with an iPad in the office – at least in terms of being productive anyway. In fact, using an iPad to access the corporate network is typically much less efficient than using your laptop or PC and provides less functionality. The skyrocketing popularity of the tablet platform, however, has sparked many new technology adaptations which make it somewhat more feasible to use tablets at work, leading many business executives to push for technologies such as application virtualization and VDI. These technologies can add significant cost and complexity, but many organizations are opting to implement them anyway to address the growing demand to use the popular new tablets in the office. What I find most interesting about this technology however, is how it has helped further change corporate mentality toward a trend known as “the consumerization of IT.”
Apple has been the single largest force behind this trend. Before the iPhone was released, most organizations had strict mobile device policies and security requirements that governed their use. BlackBerry grew to become the number one smartphone for enterprises largely due to the robust capabilities it provided for managing and securing these devices. The release and popularity of the iPhone however, slowly began a gradual acceptance of less corporate control in exchange for more features, functionality, and personal choice. This trend has continued with the many software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings that have been created over the last few years. Solutions such as Dropbox, Gmail, Skype, GoToMyPC, and iCloud, among many others, make great capabilities available to end users with little or no technical ability required to use them. Many of them provide some level of free access and can be implemented quickly without getting IT involved. Now, tablet devices are driving organizations to approve budget dollars for large IT projects involving VMWare, Citrix, and wireless communications – all so employees can access the same applications on their tablet that they have on their corporate pc or laptop. This type of acceptance would not have been likely prior to the beginning shift in corporate mentality caused by the iPhone.
So is the consumerization of IT a good or a bad thing for businesses? I believe it is good thing overall, but not without its drawbacks. It’s good from the standpoint that non-technical employees have finally found great technology that they can understand and utilize. Now that they have found it, employees (especially executives) will not accept a lower standard of technology in the office than they can setup and use themselves at home. This mindset has created a more demanding group of IT users, which should lead to technology that is more user-friendly while still delivering amazing functionality.
The drawback to this mentality however, is a broad acceptance of additional corporate risk that would have been unacceptable only a few years ago. Many of these newer consumer-driven technologies sacrifice control for the sake of ease of use. Corporate users are now using many software-as-a-service solutions with no centralized management whatsoever and often without even the knowledge of the IT department. Because these solutions can be accessed through a web browser, blocking access to them is difficult to accomplish effectively. IT departments are being overwhelmed trying to address the security and manageability of smartphones, tablet devices, and publicly hosted applications without proper tools that have been designed specifically for this task. Overall, this lack of control and increased risk seems to be getting either overlooked or underemphasized.
Ultimately, the days of rigid corporate device policies and software procurement processes seem to be coming to an end. The overwhelming demand from all levels of the organization to utilize the latest devices and apps in the office are breaking down the barriers that historically protected organizations against technology risks. Institutions that choose to accept this trend need to recognize the additional risk that it can expose them to, and develop alternative plans to address this risk. The process of performing a risk analysis on new technology implementations has not changed from the days of old. What has changed, in many cases, is the tolerance for IT departments to dictate the way that end users consume their IT.