Oct 18 2012

Can Enterprise Users and Consumers Play on the Same Field?

The consumerization of technology is changing enterprise IT, but there are still important differences.

If you listen exclusively to what most blogs and media outlets are reporting, the days of the enterprise user are numbered. The convenience of consumer technology, particularly mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, has bled over into the enterprise.

But Rafal Los, a security strategist for HP who was recently named a BizTech Must-Read IT Blogger, argues that we shouldn’t assume that all consumer technology will translate easily to the enterprise.

In his view, maintaining separate operating systems for the enterprise user and the consumer user is the right way to go.

He makes his case by pointing out in his blog what distinguishes an enterprise user from a consumer user:

On the consumer end you want simple. You want the security-based decisions to be abstracted from the user experience. You want the vendor to set policy and push updates, and want to have security ‘behind the curtain’ where the user can’t opt-out of a Patch Tuesday, or choose to disable UAC for the sake of convenience. You want the consumer OS to protect the users ... often from themselves.

On the enterprise end you want control. You need the ability to set policy for a mass of users, and control the experience, peripheral attachment, and properties of that endpoint. You don’t want the user to be able to un-do the enterprise controls (i.e., central policy disables USB devices) to circumvent your security posture.

For IT workers, Rafal’s argument makes sense. They’re tasked with managing and securing numerous devices, and having the ability to prevent users from making a digital mess at work provides a huge boost to their sanity.

But Brian Katz, a mobility expert and IT blogger, points out that it’s not so easy to control users today, even in the enterprise.

What we like to refer to as the Consumerization of IT (CoIT) is really the ‘ITization’ of the consumer, where they are now learning how to take care of their own problems and becoming their own IT [support]. They may have faster Internet at home, they certainly have as good or better computers than the enterprise provides, and let’s not forget that they do more with their computers now. They watch movies on them, access Twitter and Facebook, do their grocery and holiday shopping online and, oh yeah, they do email too. They know a lot more about technology than they did 5 years ago.

When these same people walk into work, they want to know why they can’t get to all the same resources that they can get to at home. Why, when they take a break from work, they can’t browse their Facebook page or shop for that item they needed. They may just want to check little Johnny’s or Susie’s grades on the online school portal. They also know that if you decide to block that stuff that they can just take out their phone and do it, or even better, set up an access point from their phone that they wirelessly connect their computer to since that gives them a bigger screen.

What Katz describes in his article about users going around enterprise-imposed limits is at the heart of what we call “shadow IT” — when users use technology that isn’t company approved at work or to do work.

Throwing up walls might foil some users, but anyone who’s handy with a Google search or two can quickly find ways around many IT roadblocks.

Rafal’s point, however, is still valid. Take iOS, for example. There are several use cases in which iPhone users like me could benefit from an advanced user option.

Simple things, like downloading files from a link on the web, are a pain because Apple has optimized the user experience for the simplest consumer, locking me out of a core feature that I use on my desktop all the time.

Another annoyance: I can’t access my iPhone as a hard disk to extract files. I recently used my iPhone to conduct an interview, and when I tried to export the audio to my desktop through the “share by e-mail” button, I was told the file was too large to export.

Ultimately, I had to download third-party software to my desktop and plug my iPhone in via USB to extract the interview — all the while thinking, if mobile computing really is the future of work, it shouldn’t throw up this many hurdles.

I wondered if perhaps the solution might be OSs with tiered logins that unlock more advanced features for the higher tiers, while keeping things simple for entry-level users.

I posed this question to Rafal, but he wasn’t convinced:

So the question remains: Can enterprise and consumer OSs ever truly live in harmony?