Needs of Tech Consumers, Enterprises Converge

As the consumer electronics show in Las Vegas rang in the new year last week, I found myself thinking that forces over the past decade have conspired to shape consumer and enterprise technologies along very similar lines.

As the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas rang in the new year last week, I found myself thinking that forces over the past decade have conspired to shape consumer and enterprise technologies along very similar lines.

Enterprise IT buyers have been told for many years that they cant expect to combine industrial-strength robustness with consumer-grade ease of use, but they should increasingly demand precisely that combination of strengths. Anything less is too costly in the long run, and too cumbersome in the short run, to deliver competitive advantage in todays environment. Rather than meeting dramatically different needs, consumer and enterprise technology providers now face similar demands to provide more capability and deal with more rapid change while simultaneously lowering the costs of development and support. This means that both sectors should learn from each other and that enterprise buyers should demand the convergence of best practices from both spheres.

Ten years ago, consumer devices had narrowly defined functions controlled by tightly embedded software: The emphasis was on ease of use at the expense of flexibility. Enterprise IT technologies had general-purpose foundations, tailored to tasks by crude user interface technologies that required considerable end-user training and support. Neither extreme is acceptable today.

Compare a 1994 CD player with a 2004 iPod or other portable media device. No one expected the 1990s device to take on new functions such as personal calendar management, nor did users have the bandwidth to receive such software updates if they had been offered. Today, you would expect to update a consumer device, and the infrastructure is there to allow you to do it. Similarly, enterprise applications now have the flexibility of updating a Java class or a .Net assembly to add functions to applications.

Compare a 1994 enterprise database front end with a 2004 Web client. The former might have used a terminal emulator interface to run on nearly any type of client device but at the high price of navigating through a confusing and fatiguing green-screen gauntlet. Alternatively, Visual Basic might have been used to make the interface far more approachable but at the cost of coupling that front end tightly to Windows. Today, the back end can emit XML, while the front end can pick and choose which subsets of the data to present—and in what manner, much as todays consumers of digital media can choose among different applications or different skins on their media applications to tailor their experience to their tastes.

Its essential that enterprise applications become even more flexible and easy to use. On the back end, they need to support increasingly diverse data. A vertical application that once could be built on top of a specialized data file format may now need to deal with equivalent but differently formatted data from multiple supply chain partners. Borlands Delphi is one development tool that sets the standard here, letting a developer write applications that plug different XML translation layers into a single proven set of business logic.

On the front end, shorter application life cycles—like the short product cycles of consumer electronics—require more rapid payback of developer effort and reduced investment in end-user support. Applications must therefore take shape more quickly, with less trial and error, aided by tools that assist communication between users and developers. One such tool is iRises Application Simulator, to which I gave Analysts Choice honors after reviewing it last October.

Consumer and enterprise technologies are no longer "lightweight" versus "large-scale." Digital media and interactive games demand the same 64-bit power for the family room as for the trading floor. Theyre no longer "disposable products" versus "capital assets." Both must have the flexibility to take on new functions and the accessibility to start satisfying users right out of the box. And theyre no longer "mass market" versus "in-house user." An enterprises most important applications, increasingly, are customer-facing. That means they must be intuitive, engaging and rock-solid-reliable.

Enterprise IT builders must learn to think like a Sony or Sharp as well as like an IBM.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at