Like it or not, you live in the era of the "shadow IT department." Consumer tools and toys have attached themselves to your corporate infrastructure, usually without your knowledge and consent. Sometimes the connection is physical, such as iPods being used as portable storage devices for work documents. Sometimes the connection is emotional ("Why can't our e-mail system be as simple to use as Gmail?"). Either way, you feel the impact in the form of security problems, support issues and user frustration. And the situation is only going to get more intense as consumers become increasingly attached to their personal technologies and their perceptions of how technology should work.
So we thought it would be fun to put together a mini rogue's gallery of technologies worth noting for their potential to affect the lives of IT workers everywhere. We're sure that we missed a few, so feel free to add your own suggestions to the comments below. Consider this an early warning system.
All will want, not all will get.
Apple's iPhone announcement caused a serious stir in the mobile phone world, which roiled only higher with the subsequent announcement of an exclusive arrangement with Cingular—and the fact that Cingular would require a two-year contract if you wanted to buy an iPhone. (There are only a handful of companies that would dare play this kind of "How bad do you want it?" chicken with consumers. Apple's one. The other, apparently, is Nintendo.)
Why You Should Care: If Apple sets the course for phones the way it did for MP3 players, your execs are going to be clamoring for these things—even if they aren't really designed as business tools. And the iPhone isn't designed as a business tool. But since when has that stopped your users from trying to make you support their favorite tech?
Mac OS X Leopard
Hey, Apple sets the tech-cultural agenda these days, right?
Mac OS X Leopard may have been delayed so that Apple could get its iPhone in order, but the Mac community still holds out plenty of hope that the latest foundational code from Apple will help the company find a more spacious home in business. The server version of Leopard reportedly will be certified as Unix, allowing Unix apps to run on it without modification after recompilation. And Apple says it will include 64-bit MySQL 5 and Apache 2 plus other business apps to boot.
Why You Should Care: Will you be dumping your Sun machines for Macs anytime soon? Maybe not, but that doesn't mean the Mac fanatics in your organization won't be asking you to.
Anyone can play! Really!
A game console with an interface so intuitive that parents can actually stay competitive with their kids while playing? Who'd have thought it possible? But the Wii's motion-sensing control wand and value pricing have made it the hot new game console, despite lengthy production delays and the fact that the games themselves often lack the glitz and flash of those on Sony's much more expensive and less intuitive PS3. It's proof that substance can overcome style, and that thoughtful design can win people over even if other pieces of the technology puzzle don't look quite as cool as the other players on the block.
Why You Should Care: User interfaces so simple people actually like to use them? That's a lesson that we all could stand to learn every once in a while.
Thin! Bright! Efficient! Coolness!
We've been waiting years for super-thin, ultra-bright, power-efficient organic light emitting diodes (OLED) to give us screens on everything from sidewalks to T-shirts. Well, we're a long ways from watching cartoons on the back of the cereal box in the morning, but large OLED screens do seem to be around the corner. Sony announced plans for 2007 OLED-based TV launches, and Universal Display Corporation (one of Sony's OLED partners) is talking about roll-up OLEDs that live in a small tube you could tuck in a pocket.
Why You Should Care: The IT potential—should these screens get cheap enough—is huge, as is the "Get me one of those" factor the first time your CEO sees one of your competitors using OLED in an oh-so-marketing-friendly way.
Consumer GPS systems
Somebody's watching—but no one seems to care.
Privacy advocates have screamed for years over our ever-degrading ability to live in relative anonymity. But convenience has trumped privacy time after time. (Note that even after reporting one of the largest data thefts in history, TJX's same store sales were actually up recently.) GPS devices seem to be no exception to "convenience uber alles," with practically every recent cell phone now GPS enabled (by law) and sales of consumer GPS systems reportedly booming.
Why You Should Care: GPS for tracking fleets and service teams is nothing new, but if your entering employees are simply going to expect tracking in their lives, don't you owe it to them and your company to find innovative IT tools that take advantage of the fact?
Green, Green, Green, Green
You only think you don't care.
If the Web traffic numbers on our Green IT stories are any indication, IT leaders have yet to really work up the desire to pursue green technology as a strategy in the enterprise. Yeah, the vendors like the idea because it gives them the chance to market new technology under the "buy this now and save money in the long run" banner. Company PR departments like it because it can make their employers look oh-so progressive. But IT? Sure, when the opportunity arises to replace a server with one that's a bit more energy efficient, of course. But a wholesale swap-out of current machines—ones that are running stable and don't cause you any trouble—just to save a few bucks on power and heating? Are you nuts?
Why You Should Care: Just because you're cautious doesn't mean you can ignore the trend. Green tech has become the newest, shiniest tool in the bag for consumer marketers. Your employees are being bombarded with Green every day—and they're going to wonder exactly what you're doing about it, if they haven't already brought it up 10 times at the all-hands meetings. Green is here to stay (we hope, at least, else the Earth might not be). You might as well start making some plans around it.
The ultimate time and bandwidth suck
In case you didn't notice, everyone's a television producer these days. Despite the best efforts of some big media producers and broadcasters to stamp out the fire, there's no way this trend is ever going away. Cameras, storage and bandwidth are too inexpensive (particularly if you use the bandwidth and storage you have at work!). Everyone wants their 15 minutes of fame. Every other consumer product company seems to have a "create the greatest advertisement ever" contest going on. Online media outlets are begging for user-submitted video. And there's always someone's pet doing some incredible new trick that is just waiting to be shot on DV tape and distributed to half the world's population in minutes.
Why You Should Care: These moving images aren't just sucking up more of your bandwidth every day; they're sucking up the attention of your marketing department, your training department and—depending on your industry—your CEO. If you haven't been asked to support streaming video inside your company yet, you will. Ohhhhh yes. You will.
PS: Go on. Click the video below. You know you want to.
Consumer Web Apps
Look! Your customer list is on Google Base!
Web-based apps for consumers are nothing new, but in the past they were often too cumbersome or feature-starved to be valid competition for a desktop app. But for most people, Microsoft Office hit a feature wall years ago, and Web apps continued to improve. Not only are the online spreadsheets and word processors better than ever, but consumers are much more comfortable with the idea of using software that exists soley in a Web browser. (Thanks Google and Yahoo.) And the Web apps often come bundled with features—such as convenient file sharing, remotely accessible storage and solid Office compatibility—that make them pretty attractive. And for the moment, at least, many of them are free. Given that an upgrade to Office 2007 starts at more than $200 and climbs rapidly, free is going to look pretty good to a lot of people.
Why You Should Care: "Hey Bob, let's collaborate on that spreadsheet." "Sure Jill, let me talk to IT about how we can make it sharable so you can access it from your home office." "Hey, forget them. That'll take weeks. I just found this great site called ThinkFree.com. We can be sharing a spreadsheet in minutes." Get the picture?
What the heck is a Feisty Fawn?
Ubuntu Linux has only been around for about three years, but it's already become the darling distribution for people trying to spread the Linux faith. Why? Because Ubuntu lives by the philosophy of Linux that "Just Works." Easy installation, an attractive interface, all the tools a typical computer user needs: It's Linux without the geekiness. With the release of Ubuntu 7.04, aka "Feisty Fawn," Ubuntu got even easier, with such friendly features as Windows-to-Linux migration tools, simplified networking and more.
Why You Should Care: No one's claiming that Ubuntu is going to knock Red Hat off its market-leader pedestal anytime soon. Enterprises still love the comfort factor of going with the biggest name in Linux. But for now at least, Ubuntu points the direction for how Linux should work if it ever wants to be an operating system for the masses. It's worth the download to see what Linux can be.