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How far can consumerization go for enterprise apps?

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During VMworld this week, talk of consumerization — or the rise of consumer applications and devices in corporate settings — was everywhere, stemming from VMware (s vmw) CEO Paul Maritz’s and CTO Steve Herrod’s mobile- and application-centric keynotes. Included in Herrod’s presentation was talk of a new Dropbox-like application called Project Octopus that will let users safely store, access and share corporate documents. It all sounded so promising, and then someone asked me whether it will actually get used.

If employees already use Dropbox, she asked, why would they want to use a different service to do essentially the same thing while at work? The truth is that I don’t know. I can see why employers would want them to use a separate service, but will employees stand for it?

I tend to agree with my colleague Stacey Higginbotham, who noted while reporting on VMware’s mobile play, “While enterprises will love the ability to control who can access their data, employees may not want to give up the ability to use their own tools and choose who they share their files with.” Of course, it’s not so much a question about Dropbox or Project Octopus as much as it is about the role of consumer applications in corporate settings in general.

There’s no denying that consumerization is real. Employees really are demanding the ability to use their personal devices rather than company-issued BlackBerrys and laptops. By and large, employers seem content to let them do so because it takes productivity to a whole new level. That’s one of the megatrends driving VMware’s new focus on mobility and applications: If personal devices can’t be locked down from a security standpoint, it wants to make sure enterprise applications and data can be.

Consumerization even has made its way into traditional enterprise applications, thanks to the advent of Software-as-a-Service offerings. Business users accustomed to clean, simple web-based consumer applications in their personal lives expect the same thing from web-based business applications. As Zendesk COO Zack Urlocker asked in a post last year, “Why buy and manage complex infrastructure or applications when a simpler approach will get results faster and cheaper?”

But there’s a difference between applications that either emerge from business settings or that are only relevant to businesses, and consumer-focused applications that prove themselves useful in business settings. Beyond social tools such as Socialcast and Chatter (s CRM) (no one could legitimately suggest Facebook, for example, as the interoffice communication channel), I’m not so certain it will be easy to get employees to give up the consumer applications they’ve already begun using for business needs.

Dropbox is just one example. Look at Amazon Web Services, (s amzn) which grew popular among enterprise developers despite not having been sanctioned by IT departments. Despite an endless supply of vendors selling private cloud software and alternative hosting providers’ pushing “enterprise cloud computing,” AWS still dominates cloud computing. Maybe that’s because anyone within the organization who has used AWS really likes it and won’t settle for less. Or look to Google Apps (s goog), which has wormed its way into many companies by this point.

Application providers aren’t stupid, either. When AWS and Google recognized the money to be made by selling to businesses, they got started with all sorts of security and identity management improvements. They both even undertook the effort to achieve certification for the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) to be able to win lucrative federal-government deals. It seems only logical that other new consumer-based services will follow the money, too.

Given that iPads (s aapl), iPhones, Android, AWS, Gmail and so many other tools have made the transition from the consumer world to the business world, it just seems a bit off base to suggest that enterprise applications mimicking useful consumer applications will suddenly catch on. Sure, companies might buy them and mandate their use, but that doesn’t mean employees still won’t use their preferred services, or that they’ll be happy about the change.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user Pete Prodoehl

12 Responses to “How far can consumerization go for enterprise apps?”

  1. Hunter Kelley

    The main question raised here is whether or not people will accept a corporate application in place of the consumer application they’re used to using. I don’t feel this is much of an issue.

    Consumer applications evolve, in a sense, bottom-up. Consumers complain about issues and request features and the provider, if they wish to stay in business, respond with more development.

    Corporate applications, however, are more top-down. Sure, users make the same complaints and requests, but management decides what functionality is needed and what tools to provide to the get the job done. And management dictates, for better or worse, what applications the rank and file will use to produce their work.

    What this leads to is people using more than one service, even if they’d rather not. In the example above, I would use DropBox for my personal storage, which might even be blocked at my employer, and something similar, but geared to the corporate environment, for the office. And I won’t be given a choice in what the corporate application is (unless I’m on the decision team for it).

  2. Ketharaman Swaminathan

    “If employees already use Dropbox, … why would they want to use a different service to do essentially the same thing while at work?” At least in India, the answer is very simple: Enterprise IT blocks access to Dropbox, DocStoc and other document sharing websites, and so far they’re getting away with it. As consumers, employees are enamored of a Facebook but I don’t see enterprise IT or Business getting reconciled to the fact that they have virtually no say over, say, Facebook’s constantly shifting privacy policies. Which is why IMHO there’s a huge market for enterprise apps that mimic popular consumer apps, even if they will never achieve the cult status as their consumer counterparts.

  3. Steve Christensen

    The consumerization of enterprise systems seems to only have a few examples that get recirculated. However, to N Mehta’s point, the guts of an enterprise app are anything but simple. So what’s required, and we’ve delivered it, is the ability to protect the legacy systems with a new generation of enterprise technology. Consumers still use “packaged” apps…think Angry Birds, Facebook, etc. They find value in the package and they use…they don’t, they won’t. Legacy enterprise applications have been providing packaged apps, too. Professing they are best of breed (which isn’t true and is simply a polite way of telling the customer they don’t know how to run their own business) these rigid, tightly integrated, massive and complex applications are a nightmare to install, impossible to upgrade and not even worth considering modifying or replacing.

    Yet eventually, that is what happens in every business. Instead of touching these systems, lock them in a closet, feed them electricity and let them do what they do now…enact a version freeze. Then by decoupling the data, process and technology from their control, innovative processes/transactions can be designed, deployed and measured in a matter of hours before any investment is required.

    The consumerization of enterprise seems to be a shifting of power. IT has achieved way too much influence in how a business is run and what it can do to achieve competitive advantage. These constraints are akin to driving your car by looking in the rear view mirror. IT investments can no longer choke a company because the legacy applications are ill-suited to change. As consumers we enjoy much greater computing power and experience than when we put on our employee hats and go to work. This is the consumerization effect…as employees we know what needs to be done and what opportunities exist to improve the performance, efficiency, accuracy and visibility of our jobs. Next generation enterprise software allows that to happen without disrupting the IT investments of the past.

    • David Silva

      Steve and Nico seemed to share my view on this issue and what the article was about. Corporations are not going to turn to consumer apps to solve business needs, but they will turn to business apps that are created with the consumer / USER in mind.
      It is no longer acceptable to create an app that works for the IT group, but not for the consumer. And many companies are looking away from solutions that require special training that often costs thousands of dollars extra. KISS

  4. Scoopâ„¢ Collaboration

    I agree that this post way oversimplifies the differences between consumer and enterprise requirements. It basically implies that the only difference between consumer apps and their enterprise-fortified “copies” has to do with security and control. There are in fact many other requirements at the user level that are different when you go from consumer to enterprise. If a vendor addresses these user level differences then it won’t just be the management/IT pushing the enterprise version of the consumer app/SaaS because it provides more control, it will also be the grass roots because the enterprise version has features and workflows better suited to their daily needs.

    • Derrick Harris

      I think there’s a difference between pure business applications and consumer-oriented technologies that happen to be useful for businesses. In the latter case, I think there will be employee pushback if the business versions don’t live up to expectations, and the pushback will be “just let us use Dropbox, etc.” Look at how iOS and Android made their ways into business, despite attempts at business-oriented smartphones and tablets that generally flopped. What happened is that companies had to — still have to, actually — figure out a way to run enterprise apps on those devices, and to do so securely.

      That might end up being the case with something like Dropbox: employers figure out a way to let employees use it securely on one end, and the provider works to make it more business-friendly on the other end.

  5. Here’s a little acceptability test. Think of how many places elements of your personal identity exist (e.g. just how many different online retailers have you used, online systems are you registered with etc etc etc). Now ask yourself whether you are happy for individual employees within those organisations to take those elements and copy them into something like Dropbox whilst they happen to be performing statistical analysis on the data? How about if the staff at your Doctor’s or Dental practice did the same? Happy?

  6. I think it’s more to do with the ease of use, consumer apps are easier to use than business apps. Therefore dropbox were sighted as an example, an enterprise document management system must be as easy to use as dropbox, the user don’t want to see the complexities. Most people are not IT literate, and just want the “stuff” to work, they don’t want to invest their time in getting it work, and that is where enterprise software need to improve. Up to now, there were no reason for the big vendors to really improve, companies bought their software and employees were told to use it, now employees got options, it is the big vendors that will have to catch up with “consumerization”.

  7. Agree with N Mehta. This article is naive (intentionally written naively just to get some web clicks?). FISMA is one thing but what about HIPAA? Oh, and by the way, employers at the end of the day call the ultimate shots (they pay the salaries and bonuses to the employees – employees are usually required to sign agreements which include policy). Again, what N Mehta said (the concern about oversimplification with little rinky dink stuff)!

    • Joe Tierney

      What about HIPPA?

      This “rinky dink stuff” is running circles around enterprise apps in ease of use, functionality, mobile capabilities, reliability and security.

      For example, there’s not an enterprise on this planet that wouldn’t gain additional functionality from applications within the Google Apps suite. Accounting/Finance needs Excel. Every other business unit tracking data on spreadsheets would save hours every week by moving to an app that allows simultaneous editing – updating spreadsheets is practically a full time job for many. Emailing a ss, doc or presentation to someone with a “let me know what you think” note doesn’t compare to actually doing it together, in real-time. Google Apps have much more in common with the search engine than Outlook, Exchange or SharePoint – and that’s a good thing.

      IT needs to look away from software products and towards services – and true services, not just hosted products. Many cloud computing vendors got their start with consumers – Google and Amazon for example. But there are also firms who learned from these businesses and built their services for the enterprise –,, Workday, GoodData and dozens of other firms.

      Working with traditional enterprise apps doesn’t suck because employees “don’t get it” – they suck because they’re outdated and were built for a world before the modern Internet.

      IT works for the business, not the other way around. IT teams embracing this trend can deliver more apps and value to their businesses than ever before. IT teams who convince themselves these apps are “rinky dink” are obsolete.

  8. My problem is this: most of the apps people cite (when speaking of “consumerization” of IT) are relatively simple. Example: dropbox. Great execution but a *very* simple concept. The moment you start talking about the guts of an enterprise app – financials, HR, supply chain, inventory management etc – then things start getting complex and implementations start to become expensive, customizations creep in and so on. This is the case for and workday. Granted these are MUCH better than their on premise equivalents, but implementing one of these for a large organization is no walk in the park.

    I wish people would talk about these more challenging use cases rather than the simple drop box (or equivalent) use cases.