The consumerisation of enterprise computing

Paul Buchheit is the brains behind Gmail. He then left Google and founded Friend feed which was recently acquired by Facebook.

Last week Paul blogged his opinion on the design of devices and applications.

Buchheit’s post was written in response to criticisms of Apple’s forthcoming iPad. Critics have listed all the things that the iPad won’t do that they would expect a tablet computer or netbook to be able to do. For Buchheit these critics are missing the point:

What’s the right approach to new products? Pick three key attributes or features, get those things very, very right, and then forget about everything else. Those three attributes define the fundamental essence and value of the product — the rest is noise. For example, the original iPod was: 1) small enough to fit in your pocket, 2) had enough storage to hold many hours of music and 3) easy to sync with your Mac (most hardware companies can’t make software, so I bet the others got this wrong). That’s it — no wireless, no ability to edit playlists on the device, no support for Ogg — nothing but the essentials, well executed.

We took a similar approach when launching Gmail. It was fast, stored all of your email (back when 4MB quotas were the norm), and had an innovative interface based on conversations and search. The secondary and tertiary features were minimal or absent. There was no “rich text” composer. The original address book was implemented in two days and did almost nothing (the engineer doing the work originally wanted to spend five days on it, but I talked him down to two since I never use that feature anyway). Of course those other features can be added or improved later on (and Gmail has certainly improved a lot since launch), but if the basic product isn’t compelling, adding more features won’t save it.

By focusing on only a few core features in the first version, you are forced to find the true essence and value of the product. If your product needs “everything” in order to be good, then it’s probably not very innovative (though it might be a nice upgrade to an existing product). Put another way, if your product is great, it doesn’t need to be good.

At the end of the post Buchheit made a comment that helps explain why so many enterprise applications suffer useability problems:

Disclaimer: This advice probably only applies to consumer products (ones where the purchaser is also the user ..). For markets that have purchasing processes with long lists of feature requirements, you should probably just crank out as many features as possible and not waste time on simplicity or usability.

Enterprises still purchase their applications and devices through a long list of feature requirements. Microsoft are kings of enterprise computing because they provide so many features in their products- SharePoint can be made to do almost anything. It isn’t just Microsoft that operates like this. Every Enterprise Content Management system vendor plays the same game, favouring features over useablity and design values, because it is features that they are judged on.

This contrast between the design of devices and applications intended to appeal directly to consumers and those intended to win through enterprise procurement processes is coming to a head.   More and more aspects of enterprise computing are becoming markets which consumer-targeted devices/applications are competing for.

Three years ago the battle for the smartphone market was a straight head to head between Research in Motion’s Blackberry and Microsoft’s Windows Mobile. Both assumed the smartphone market would go to the supplier that won the enterprise market,  and both crammed their smartphone full of features. Then Apple bought out the iPhone, with less functionality,  appealing direct to consumers, and a design that so intuitive that they did not have to ship a manual with the phone.  Now the future of the smartphone is a battle between two consumer companies: Google and Apple.

These two companies will also be the ones fighting it out for the tablet/netbook market. This year will see the launch of Apple’s iPad, and of Google’s Chrome OS – a new operating system for netbooks. Both will be bought as consumer devices but used for work. Read this post from Pete Gilbert for a discussion of how the iPad will support work in ‘the third place’ – outside of both the home and the office, on the move, in cafes, on trains, airport lounges etc.

The trend of enterprise computing is to require less and less to be installed on the PC, with the logical end result being that your device will only need a browser. For over a decade Microsoft have had a very safe income stream from Microsoft Office, which always had to be installed on the client device. Now it has to compete with Google Docs, which not only doesn’t require anything installed on the device, but is also free. Their solution is Office Web Apps, which will allow people to view and edit documents held in SharePoint 2010’s without having MS Office installed on the device.

As soon as you reach the point where only a browser is required on the device then (in theory!) it doesn’t matter what device an employee uses (so long as it doesn’t compromise security). That will work to the advantage of both the enterprise and the individual: the enterprise because they will no longer need to worry about providing every individual with a PC (and configuring and maintaining them) – the individual because they can choose their device of preference.

Consumerisation is a trend that affects applications as much as devices.

The one thing that every web 2.0 application has in common is that all of them were written to be used without training and without helpdesk support. It is conceivable that enterprises may start to regard training and helpdesk support as unwanted costs of applications (much like cloud computing vendors are encouraging enterprises to see system and server administration as unwanted costs).

Last week I heard Roger James, Director of IT at the University of Westminster, describe to the UNICOM Records Management update conference how the University provided Google Apps to all its students and staff without having to provide any training. It has been in use for over a year and they have so far only received 150 help desk calls. Google Apps is an amalgam of applications such as GMail, Google calendar and Google Docs that were first launched as free consumer products on the web.

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