Businesses can learn a thing or two from home PCs

How completely things have changed. Twenty-five years ago, most people thought home computers were pointless. Even 10 years ago, they were more the exception than the rule. Cell phones and handheld computers were pricey executive toys and the average person had only a vague idea what the Internet was.

It’s different today. Who doesn’t have a computer at home these days? Who doesn’t have Internet access? Who doesn’t have a cell phone?

If you manage technology, you’ve seen the difference this makes. As one CIO put it to me recently, “Everyone now has a computer at home, everyone has e-mail and Internet at home, and that makes them a little bit more comfortable with technology that they have to use at the office.” On the other hand, you have more people who think they know their way around computers – more tinkerers – and that can cause problems.

But the transition in the past few years goes beyond PCs becoming common at home. Now consumer technology is leading business technology.

Where are new, more powerful microprocessors being used first? In corporate servers, yes – but also in personal computers used for games and multimedia. For ordinary word processing and spreadsheets, who needs them? Today’s desktops are already twiddling their thumbs most of the time running those applications.

Go see a new line of computers demonstrated these days – Apple’s first Intel-based Macs are a good example – and you’ll be shown snazzy online photo albums, music players and other consumer multimedia software.

Where the action is
Visit with software researchers – as I did recently at Microsoft – and you’ll find them working on search technology to help people find the photograph they want on a hard drive crammed with pictures. That’s where the software action is.

Instant messaging started in the consumer space and crossed over to business. First teenagers exchanged text messages, then they grew up and took the technology to work.

What does this mean to business technology? It means if you want to know what’s coming next in office computing and communications, you need to look at what’s going on in consumer gadgets today.

Built-in cameras have become an almost standard cell phone feature. Few people need them for business, but they’re big in the consumer market. So from now on, cell phones have cameras. What can businesses do with that? What security concerns does it raise?

Home multimedia applications are driving more memory, storage and audio and video capabilities into PCs. Today’s average office worker doesn’t need a 100 GB hard disk, but once that storage is there, someone will find a use for it. Audio recordings of every phone call? More powerful search tools?

Desktop videoconferencing still hasn’t caught on in the office. But the consumer market is driving the necessary technology into our PCs, and camera-equipped cell phones are planting the idea that always connected means visible as well as audible.

If you want to see the future of business technology, go home.

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