During the Altiris user conference in April, I watched a lunch panel discuss the "consumerization of IT" and whether that's a good thing. My initial thought was that it was probably bad for enterprises that want to control everything, but may be good for smaller businesses.
Two Network World contributors were on the panel, Linda Musthaler and Tom Henderson. Linda wrote about the enterprise IT issues here, but I want to talk about how small businesses deal with the consumerization of IT, or more broadly, if consumer technology helps or hurts small businesses.
On one hand, small business and consumer technology have a huge degree of overlap. Home computer gear works quite well for small businesses, and many small businesses start in the owner's home. Standard home computers work fine for general business functions, and both XP Home and Vista Home do well with workgroup networks, but not enterprise networks where they choke on the network authentication requirements.
Enterprises worry about users demanding iPhones which require back-end restructuring to get access to corporate e-mail and company-built applications, although companies are catching up. Small businesses may not allow employees to choose an iPhone for different reasons, such as cost or the need to use "click to talk" functions popularized by Nextel.
Big companies hate employees using public Instant Messaging tools like AOL and Yahoo Messenger because they aren't secure. Small companies love them because they allow instant connections, and they worry less about security. Perhaps they should worry more, but actually, only idiot vice presidents at big companies use IM to discuss confidential matters. Judgment: Consumer tech is fine.
Aberdeen Analyst Michael Dortch, a friend from when he wrote for technical magazines way back, was also on the panel and pointed out that 70 per cent of critical corporate data can be accessed by people who shouldn't have that authority. That makes the ubiquitous USB drive in many employee pockets a viable security threat and corporate espionage tool.
Small companies face even more of those issues, for two reasons. First, small businesses have looser security. Second, small businesses have less margin of error in revenue if their customer database winds up in the hands of a competitor. Judgment: Consumer tech threatens small and large companies alike.
A good thing about consumer tech is the lower price. You can find low-end wireless access equipment, printers, scanners, external hard drives and the like in consumer outlets. The flip side is that product model churn in consumer markets means you might not be able to go back six months later and buy more of the same models.
Being available everywhere, as consumer tools are, helps small businesses find and buy those tools. Yet the lack of indepth support for consumer items can make life tough if you have a problem. Of course, the big vendors can't always deliver excellent customer support, but at least you have a fighting chance of getting decent support from a company selling business products.