The tyranny of consumerization is real

Computerworld cites the Ipad 2 and increasing demand by end users to use such consumer devices in corporate environments as “The tyranny of consumerization.”

This has happened before. And if history repeats itself, the future will be better than today, but the road there is going to involve some pain.
It happened before with PCs. PCs supplanted big-iron mainframe and minicomputers. They weren’t as reliable, but they were cheap and flexible, and end users loved that. Some corporate IT departments didn’t like it as much. But when the accounting department decided they wanted a few PCs running whatever spreadsheet was the standard of the time (Lotus 1-2-3 or Microsoft Excel, depending on whether we’re talking 1981-1993, or 1993 onwards), the accounting department got it. After all, they had the money to do it. And if the IT department didn’t want to support it, they’d just get the store they bought it from to install it.

I ran into this at my very first job. We had one department that would buy whatever it wanted, and if we didn’t drop everything and install it right away, they’d call Computerland to come install it. Then when things went wrong, they’d alternate between screaming at us and going back to Computerland to keep it working. One day they brought the whole building down when Computerland plugged an Ethernet cable and an Ethernet card into the building’s Token Ring LAN.

At my second job, it was worse. The IT director there hated IBM, and anything that looked like IBM, so he wouldn’t allow PCs in the door. So the users would buy whatever they saw on sale in the Sunday papers, bring it in when he wasn’t looking, and try to get it to work. And one of the reasons Windows 95 was so successful was because it would connect up to almost anything it saw on your network, as long as you were willing to pony up the extra dollars for a top-tier, well supported network card.

I remember taking a computer class early in my career and the instructor talking about what an eye-opener Windows 95 was. He installed a beta version of it, and it detected his Token Ring network card and connected up to his Novell LAN with minimal effort.

That was the bright side.

The dark side in the 1990s was that not all PCs were created equal. If you bought your computer from Computerland, chances are everything would work fairly smoothly because they’d steer you in the direction of first-tier equipment that worked well together.

When you went to a consumer electronics store and bought whatever was on sale, it didn’t always work smoothly. Sometimes the solution was as simple as removing an off-brand network card and replacing it with a 3Com. And sometimes it wasn’t.

That was the mess I co-inherited in 1998. The corporate environment was a mismash of Dell, Gateway, HP, IBM, Micron, Packard Bell, and white-box computers. Most everything that wasn’t a Micron came from the company’s consumer line, rather than their corporate line. Whether they were running Windows 95, 98, or NT4 was a crapshoot.

I occasionally still hear people say, “A PC is a PC is a PC,” but trust me. Work in an environment like that for about a week, and you realize the opposite is true. Some of the computers worked just fine. Many didn’t, and everyone had a theory about why.

Ultimately, two of us solved the problem with standardization and attrition. Someone recommended that the company standardize on Micron Client Pro PCs running Windows NT4. Whoever made that suggestion had enough clout to make it stick.

Micron didn’t change those computers’ configurations very often and when they did, they didn’t change a lot, so the machines were pretty easy to work on. And we would image the machines with a standard suite of software, so every batch was identical, and each batch had only very minor changes from the previous one.

It didn’t take long at all for everyone to realize that the departments with those recent Micron PCs made a lot fewer support calls, and that those support calls tended to be resolved much faster. It was common for a problem with a non-standard machine to take half a day or more to resolve, but that was really rare with the Microns.

Which brings us back to the present.

There were two problems with those early PCs. The first was that the configurations were all over the map. Apple’s Ipad 2 won’t have that problem because the hardware is consistent. Android tablets will be more problematic in that regard.

The second problem with those early PCs was exactly what made them popular. They were flexible. Users could install whatever they wanted on them, and they did. And that was great, until something went wrong, and then someone had to come along and sort out the conflict. It’s not easy to troubleshoot things you’ve never seen before.

All tablet computers are going to be prone to that issue. Is every program that makes it into the app store (or its Android equivalent) vetted to play nice with every other program there? It’s doubtful, because there are just too many of them.

And because the world has changed, tablets open corporations up to a whole new world of liability. Users will take their tablets home, and they will sync them up with both their home and work PCs. And that brings up two new issues.

How do you ensure that sensitive corporate information doesn’t get duplicated on home PCs via those tablets? Once sensitive corporate information is on home PCs, the corporation loses control of it. If the employee leaves the company, the company has no way to pull it back. And even in the case of so-called “lifers,” the perimeter around the average home network isn’t as secure as the perimeters around the average corporate network, so that information is in greater danger of being stolen and misused.

And what do you do if copyrighted material from those home PCs ends up on corporate PCs? Users will copy music and movies onto their tablets, and inevitably, copies of those will end up on corporate PCs. Right now, the RIAA and MPAA is satisfied to go after grandmothers and single moms. I doubt they’ll go after companies with large legal departments, but what about small and medium companies that may not have one? They would have more seizable assets than Jammie Thomas, and thus a greater probability of actually collecting an outlandish award. Figuring out how to gather the evidence will prove difficult, but the profit potential will be irresistible.

So I can see why CIOs are nervous about the Ipad 2 and its inevitable Android- and WebOS-based competition. Widespread adoption of them promises to bring back an old problem, and a potential new and costly one.

Until they can mitigate the potential legal liabilities, some CIOs may just opt to disable the USB ports on their corporate PCs to keep people from using their tablets as data conduits.

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