The Consumerization of IT

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In a recent presentation, Lew Cirne, CEO of application performance management vendor New Relic (it’s an anagram), revealed the company now has 5,000 customers and just one sales rep.  That’s astonishing.  Cirne points out that there’s a new class of customers for whom “there is no reason whatsoever for application performance management to be sold by a direct sales force.”  If you’re building a cloud-based application on top of a standard Ruby, .Net or Java stack, much of the complexity has been factored out already, enabling a much simpler self-service sales model.

This is a profound shift in IT. Cirne’s prior company, Wily Technology, had all the trappings of a typical enterprise software company: lots of knobs and dials, complex on-site installations, high prices and lengthy sales cycles.  Still, for customers deploying J2EE app servers, Wily’s products helped them find and fix performance issues that otherwise would have taken months to resolve. Wily did a great job back in the day; but things have changed. By moving to a cloud-based platform as a service the deployment model can now be dramatically simplified. New Relic illustrates a powerful trend: the consumerization of IT.

In the last 10 years, the web has brought us countless innovative technologies which enable consumers to get things done simply and without fuss, whether it’s finding information, buying goods and services, managing finances, sharing documents, communicating with friends, finding a job, setting up meetings, backing up a PC, or any number of other activities.  So why, when you go to work in a typical large company, are the applications so bloated and complex?  Why can’t we get the kind of simple, one-click deployment of applications and infrastructure that mirrors what’s going on in the consumer world?

Open source has gone a long way toward putting power back in the hands of developers, who can download, install and deploy software without having to go through any kind of convoluted sales or budget approval process.  You want MySQL?  You can download and install in 15 minutes, and you don’t have to talk to anyone to do it.

Software as a service (SaaS) takes this to an even broader audience, enabling employees to get the kind of lightweight, consumer, self-serve capabilities in their job without even having to run their own servers.  Platforms like Amazon AWSHerokuMakaraRightScale and others put this same kind of SaaS power in the hands of developers.

It’s a pretty compelling message.  Why buy and manage complex infrastructure or applications when a simpler approach will get results faster and cheaper?  Sure there are cases where you may want the capabilities of a public cloud running in a  secure, private environment; Eucalyptus, which implements the Amazon AWS API, could fit the bill in such a case.

No doubt, much of the simplification in from SaaS comes from the fact that it does less.  Salesforce.com has never had the bells and whistles of Siebel, but it also doesn’t take a year to deploy.  Users of Box.net are probably OK with giving up some of the functionality found in Sharepoint.  But does anyone really need every last feature that’s gone into latest Enterprise software upgrade?

My view: ease of use trumps a long feature list any day of the week. There are both techological reasons as well as sociological and economic reasons for why organizations are seeking greater simplicity.  Part of this stems from the fact that complex enterprise applications grew beyond the ability of most organizations to successfully adopt.  The cost of implementing a heavy-weight, custom solution got in the way of ever achieving the benefits. I think many organizations that were oversold on enterprise software in the 90s have now realized that agility and ease of use may be better, even if it means adapting the business to more standardized, or even simplified, processes.

As it turns out, the web-based browser user interface, while constraining, actually has the benefit of keeping things simple.  That’s exactly what’s needed to enable rapid adoption of technologies: Keep it simple, stupid. The rise of open source, as well as SaaS, has been part of a “back to basics” approach in software that has put usability of the most important capabilities over the breadth and complexity of having every feature imaginable.  In other words, delivering the 80-percent-most-common features can lead to much greater adoption than trying to have every last bell & whistle.

After all, look at the success of Apple’s iPad. You can argue all you want about open vs. closed, or integrated fragmented. The bottom line is: Apple sold 4.2 million iPads last quarter by delivering a powerful but easy-to-use device. Now they’re bringing that same type of iPad interface to the Mac with the arrival of the Mac App Store in the coming months and the Lion OS in 2011. Apple, perhaps better than any other vendor, has captured the most common use cases with their products.  They don’t try to get every feature into their products.  They are rigorous in determining the essential feature set so the products remain easy to use. In fact, Apple has raised simplicity of design into an art form for consumer electronics.  Because of Apple’s elegant designs we don’t even think of the iPad or iPhone as computers. Why shouldn’t IT get the same kind of ease of use as the iPad?

Perhaps these examples of ease of use will inspire other ideas that could be applied in IT. What do you think?  What areas of IT do you think are ripe for consumerization?  Let me know your thoughts by posting a comment below.

Zack Urlocker is an investor, advisor and board member to several startup software companies in SaaS and open source. He was previously the EVP of products at MySQL responsible for engineering and marketing. He is currently an executive in residence at Scale Venture Partners. You can read more of his observations at www.theopenforce.com.

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