Consumer Appeal: Skype, MySpace and Other Consumers Apps Pose Risks, Opportunities

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When Paul Tang first downloaded Google’s desktop search application, he was impressed by its speed and power. Instead of painstakingly looking for data and files on his hard drive, he could find them with the ease of a Web search. However, Tang, chief medical information officer at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF), quickly realized that the slick application could also be dangerous.

Tang saw that this early version of Google Desktop (it was released in 2004) would index encrypted webpages from the hospital’s online patient health system, caching the data on his PC. “We take great pains to avoid leaving personal health information on PCs, and we noticed that the search tool was doing that by default,” says Tang. Tang didn’t ban the software, but the hospital advised users to change its settings so that encrypted webpages—including those within its medical records system—would be excluded from searches.

Tang isn’t as worried now. Google has since changed that default setting, so it no longer leaves cached information on a user’s computer, and Tang counts himself an enthusiastic user of the software, among other consumer applications. But as a guardian of patient privacy, Tang knows he has to keep his eyes open for potential vulnerabilities. “Consumer technologies are useful and powerful—and difficult to regulate,” he says. “You have to be careful and conscientious about how you use them.”

The Consumer Tidal Wave

Not long ago, corporations were on the leading edge of technology adoption, providing employees with better equipment and software than they could purchase on their own. Now, however, consumer applications are easy and fun to use, and often free; in many cases, they also work better than corporate software. And the tables have turned on CIOs, as employees download software from the Internet, bring their handheld devices to the office and merge their home computing life with work. Concerned about losing control of their networks, some IT departments have banned all unauthorized software and electronics from the workplace.

While it’s true that consumer technologies such as desktop search, Internet telephone services such as Skype and devices such as iPods can weaken network security, the trend is hard to stop. In many cases users are downloading software unbeknownst to the IT department. In a Gartner survey conducted last year, half of the respondents reported that more than 60 percent of their IT users were employing consumer-grade software, whether approved or not.

Furthermore, employees may be on to something: Emerging consumer applications, when adapted to the enterprise, can make workers more productive and cut IT costs. In fact, Gartner predicts that between 2007 and 2012, the majority of new information technologies that enterprises adopt will have their roots in the consumer market. (For more about the impact of consumer technologies on enterprise IT, see “Enterprise Software Gets a Face-Lift,” Page 66.)

Instead of building a wall to keep consumer technologies out, CIOs need to be pragmatic and provide a place for employees’ favorite applications. A willingness to let employees experiment requires management strategies and policies for using external applications that will prevent serious security and privacy breaches. It will also mean, in some cases, making sure networks and architecture are configured to handle the consumer gadgets and software.

“CIOs are in a balancing act,” says Michael Gotta, principal analyst at the Burton Group. “Suddenly there are all of these lightweight, easy-to-use applications that people want to work with, but IT still has to make sure they’re meeting security and compliance requirements.”

Among dozens of technologies gaining momentum in the consumer market, we look at five that are making their way into the enterprise. These technologies—social networking software, Skype, desktop search, handhelds and mashups—exemplify the most important trends in software that will have an impact on business.

Social Networking Software

What it is: Social networking software allows users to interact and share information. Consumer versions of these applications include MySpace.com and Facebook.com, to which the younger crowd flocks to post pictures and network among friends, and LinkedIn, where the professional set keeps up with colleagues and finds out about job openings.

Other popular consumer applications include Flickr, which allows users to “tag” personal photos (a process in which users choose keywords or descriptive terms to classify them), and Del.icio.us, a service for storing Web bookmarks. These sites, both owned by Yahoo, enable users to share their photos and favorite websites. Tagging is sometimes called social bookmarking because it allows multiple users to categorize online content.

A few software companies, including Contact Networks and Visible Path, offer corporate applications that mirror these consumer sites, promising to help business users organize and find information.

Business benefits: In two words, knowledge management. Corporations have struggled with KM for years, trying to get employees to share information. Now some companies are experimenting with social networking applications, hoping employees will adopt them if they see these systems are easy to use and deliver benefits quickly. Other companies are working on ways to help employees find data more easily by adopting tagging technology such as that used by Flickr.

At the Boston law firm Mintz Levin, attorneys search for contacts on the firm’s intranet using Contact Networks’ software. Fred Pretorius, Mintz Levin’s director of IS, says he decided to give the enterprise social networking software a try two years ago, after attorneys complained about floods of messages from colleagues that would begin, “Does anyone know…?” Now, the firm’s 475 lawyers can search for contacts within the firm from a link on the company intranet page.

Pretorius provided Contact Networks with the firm’s global address list, and the software company then installed the application on an existing server. The harder part, he says, was convincing attorneys to expose their client lists. “This was a huge cultural obstacle because contacts are what defines their work,” Pretorius says. At first, 20 percent of the attorneys opted out of the system. As they began to see how it could help them, however, that resistance began to fade. Now, 99 percent of Mintz Levin attorneys use the system.

In addition to sharing personal information and contacts, companies are also trying out ways to organize corporate information using employee-generated tags, or keywords. Tagging makes information easier to find than is often possible on a corporate intranet. “I know of no organization that has an intranet that works well for everybody finding what they need,” says Thomas Vander Wal, founder and senior consultant for InfoCloud Solutions. (Vander Wal created the term folksonomy, which refers to a tagging system created within an Internet community.)

Mitre, a nonprofit research and development company, is experimenting with tagging using a customized application that was built on an open-source tool called Scuttle. The pilot project, dubbed “onomi,” is similar to Del.icio.us in that it allows employees to share annotated bookmarks. Donna Cuomo, chief information architect with Mitre’s center for information and technology, says the idea arose after she noticed that employees were using Del.icio.us and Flickr to share company information. So far, 900 of Mitre’s 6,000 employees are using onomi to organize their own bookmarks and share them with colleagues. “A lot of people have adopted it as the only way they want to share resources,” Cuomo says.

The risks: As consumer technologies go, social software poses few major risks. Employees may use consumer social networking sites for business purposes, sharing photos on their corporate blogs using Flickr or posting company information on LinkedIn. If employees start using such applications under the radar, however, there could be confusion about where and when it’s appropriate to share information. Mitre’s Cuomo says that she feels more comfortable using an internal tagging system because employees won’t be putting links to company information outside of the firewall.

Skype

What it is: Skype is one of a slew of applications in the emerging voice over IP telephony market that allow users to engage in voice and instant messaging conversations with each other. (Phone calls via Skype are free when made to another Skype user.) It has emerged—mainly through word of mouth—as one of the most successful Internet applications of all time, with more than 300 million downloads and more than 100 million registered users. Skype was acquired by eBay last year for $2.6 billion. Competitors include AOL’s AIM Triton and Microsoft’s Windows Live Messenger.

Skype’s appeal is that it’s easy to use and the quality of its voice service is high. “It’s better than most VoIP products out there,” says Steve Cawley, CIO with the University of Minnesota, where he suspects Skype is popular among international students and researchers.

Business benefits: VoIP technology offers huge cost savings over traditional telephone service, especially for companies that make a lot of long-distance calls or have employees working in places subject to high long-distance fees. Skype and applications similar to it can also help companies that haven’t yet deployed VoIP create a converged communications suite, including voice, video and instant messaging, writes Irwin Lazar, an analyst with Burton Group, in a report about the technology.

For example, Lazar says, many Burton Group employees use Skype for internal and external communications. At first, most were motivated by cheaper long-distance calls. But many are now using it for instant messaging. Saul Klein, vice president of marketing with Skype, says 25 percent to 30 percent of its customers use the application for business. In the corporate environment, Skype poses some security risks (see below). But companies, especially small ones, that are more focused on cost savings than security may be willing to take that risk. Even CIOs at some larger companies such as Greif, a maker of industrial packaging products, report that they are willing to test Skype and aren’t overly concerned with potential security risks.

The risks: As with any application exposed to the Internet, “the potential that some flaw will be discovered that would enable an attacker to either gain control of or disrupt a Skype user’s computer or mobile device is real,” notes Lazar. (In general, VoIP can pose a security risk because calls travel over data lines that may be vulnerable to Internet worms and viruses.)

These risks are magnified in the case of Skype because, unlike with enterprise VoIP systems from vendors such as Cisco and Avaya, there’s no way to track who is using Skype or how it is being used. That’s because it can be downloaded and installed by employees themselves.

Finally, Skype can’t log and monitor phone calls, so companies that have to track calls for compliance purposes may want to avoid it. Pharmaceutical company Novartis has banned it, and schools including Oxford University and the University of Minnesota have issued warnings against using Skype.

Minnesota’s Cawley also discourages using Skype because of the security risks. He worries about the capability for Skype users with a public IP address to become “supernodes,” acting as hubs that route calls for other users. In the meantime, he suggests that users pick another VoIP service, such as Free World Dialup, which has clients for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. And although students and faculty can use Skype if they choose, they are asked to turn the application off when they are done calling. “If we do see a problem with Skype, we may go ahead and block it,” says Cawley.

Desktop Search

What it is: A free tool offered by Google, MSN, Yahoo and others that allows users to quickly search the contents of their hard drives. The latest version of Google Desktop can also be used to share files between computers. Users download the tool, which indexes everything on their hard drives in the same way that Google indexes the Web. The software can be set to return results on e-mail, text files, spreadsheets, photos, PDFs and more.

Business benefits: Desktop search can make work easier and increase productivity, especially for employees in industries such as biotechnology who need to find technical information quickly to do their jobs. Palo Alto Medical Foundation’s Tang says that even though initially he had concerns about the security and privacy implications of desktop search, it can be a valuable tool if users know how to protect their information.

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