Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Steve Jobs' not-so-accidental role in the consumerization of enterprise IT

There was a wistful feeling that hit me (and from the sounds of it, many of us in Silicon Valley) last Wednesday when I heard about the loss of Steve Jobs.

After pausing for a moment or two to take in his career as a whole, that melancholy quickly turned to something close to amazement. It is hard not to be amazed at all Steve had been able to accomplish. He somehow brought a simple beauty to
technology that had previously been complex and, well, stodgy at best.

However, in the flood of tributes and “what I learned from Steve” articles that came after, the ones about Steve’s impact on enterprise IT were some of the ones that I found more controversial.

How Steve put consumer pressure on enterprise IT

Lisa Schmeiser’s InfoWorld article, for example, caught my eye because it underscored many of the points I thought were so amazing about Steve in the first place. Under his direction, Apple created devices that were so great, you wanted to use them. First for personal tasks. Then for everything. In this way,Apple and Jobs went from “always being an outside force” (as Joe McKendrick of ZDNet put it) to turning up the consumerization pressure on enterprise IT in a big way.

How did he do it? Like Lisa, I think the consumerization of IT push owes a lot of its strength to the iPod. I certainly fell for it. For me, that innocent iPod Shuffle I got as a Christmas present was the gateway drug for me to buy my way up the chain. Next came a Nano, a full-sized iPod, another Shuffle, an iPhone for the wife, 2 more Shuffles for the kids, at last an iPad, and most recently a MacBook Air.

And while I didn’t use the iPods at work (much), the iPad and the Air instantly became part of my work life, given how they helped me get my work done better (and despite some reservations about the iPad by the IT department at my company at the time).

Was his impact on enterprise IT accidental?

“Steve Jobs's disregard for enterprise IT was not a secret,” writes Lisa in her article. “Yet without him, there would be no consumerization of IT. He entirely changed the nature of enterprise computing -- accidentally.”

This is where I have a hard time with Lisa’s article. I agree with a tweet I saw by @robhof: Lisa’s premise that all this was accidental on the part of Steve Jobs misses the point. I think part of his genius was to make it seem accidental, but it to be part of a bigger plan. Or at least part of a logical evolution.

Mixing “insanely great” with enterprise IT

My feeling is this: when you design things to be “insanely great” and to delight the human beings that are supposed to be using your product, it isn’t that odd that they want to use those very same products in all parts of their lives. Personal and work. And enterprise IT would be a bit foolish not to figure out how to embrace what these devices can do eventually. That pressure on large company IT orgs is very real (from what I’ve seen) and today is coming from all sides. That’s an opportunity for both IT and the vendors in this space to help make this possible.

And it won’t stop with hardware. I think we’ll find that the App Store/iTunes metaphor will become the dominant way that software gets purchased going forward. It may have started with Amazon-style on-line stores, but Apple perfected it with music and quickly pivoted to applications, too. The software and mobile industries have learned from this and will never look back. Things like the Android marketplace and even the Cloud Commons effort I helped get underway at CA Technologies (my previous employer) were driven or at least inspired by this approach.

I think seeing all this as accidental on the part of Steve Jobs is probably not right. Jobs had his focus on the only thing that matters, whether the initial target is consumers or enterprise IT – human beings.

Dave Ohara’s Green Data Center Blog pointed me toward a Jobs quote that underscores this. “One of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.” He may not have been plotting to take over every aspect of IT, but Jobs certainly picked the best way to do it: whatever you create, create it well so human beings want to use it.

Thankfully, enough time to reflect

The news of Steve’s death leaves a hole, for sure. The way it played out, I thought, was actually kind of fitting. By stepping down from his role as Apple’s CEO in August, Steve gave people a rare chance for reflection (I collected and posted some of my favorite Steve Jobs stories published at the time). Whether he meant to or not, he afforded the industry a chance to say good-bye while he was still alive.

Hopefully he also had the chance to see how much of a difference he made. And how much that difference was appreciated.

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