What I want to talk about is how small businesses deal with the consumerization of IT, or more broadly, if consumer technology helps or hurts small businesses.

On one hand, small business and consumer technology have a huge degree of overlap. Home computer gear works quite well for small businesses, and many small businesses start in the owner’s home. Standard home computers work fine for general business functions, and both XP Home and Vista Home do well with workgroup networks, but not enterprise networks where they choke on the network authentication requirements.

Enterprises worry about users demanding iPhones which require back-end restructuring to get access to corporate e-mail and company-built applications, although companies are catching up. Small businesses may not allow employees to choose an iPhone for different reasons, such as cost or the need to use “click to talk” functions popularized by Nextel.

Big companies hate employees using public Instant Messaging tools like AOL and Yahoo Messenger because they aren’t secure. Small companies love them because they allow instant connections, and they worry less about security. Perhaps they should worry more, but actually, only idiot vice presidents at big companies use IM to discuss confidential matters. Judgment: Consumer tech is fine.

Aberdeen Analyst Michael Dortch, a friend from when he wrote for technical magazines way back, was also on the panel and pointed out that 70% of critical corporate data can be accessed by people who shouldn’t have that authority. That makes the ubiquitous USB drive in many employee pockets a viable security threat and corporate espionage tool.

Small companies face even more of those issues, for two reasons. First, small businesses have looser security. Second, small businesses have less margin of error in revenue if their customer database winds up in the hands of a competitor. Judgment: Consumer tech threatens small and large companies alike.

A good thing about consumer tech is the lower price. You can find low-end wireless access equipment, printers, scanners, external hard drives and the like in consumer outlets. The flip side is that product model churn in consumer markets means you might not be able to go back six months later and buy more of the same models.

Being available everywhere, as consumer tools are, helps small businesses find and buy those tools. Yet the lack of indepth support for consumer items can make life tough if you have a problem. Of course, the big vendors can’t always deliver excellent customer support, but at least you have a fighting chance of getting decent support from a company selling business products.

The Altiris panel seemed to agree on the idea that consumer tools will migrate into corporations no matter what, so the companies better get ready. As Henderson reminded the audience, most corporate IT guys swore they’d never let insecure wireless networks in the building, or that risky Voice over Internet phone technology on their network. Today, of course, some big companies run wireless phone handsets across Wi-Fi networks to Voice over Internet phone servers, so things do change. Big companies have to get ready for that change.

Small companies need to take one step back and decide in which direction they want to go when they change. Big companies with bigger budgets can try four approaches and see what works, while small companies must hit the target the first time. So you need to give some thought to how consumer technology can help your business.

Some tools, like consumer smart phones, put enterprise power in small biz hands for less money. The push to put “media servers” in fancy homes makes disk systems available for less money, a great small business benefit. YouTube makes it easy for small companies to stream video over the Internet for free, and your customers can link to your videos from your Facebook page.

Consumer tools may give enterprises headaches as they struggle to integrate them securely into corporate networks, but they bring great advantages to small businesses. So every time you buy technology from a consumer outlet, laugh and figure out other ways to outsmart those huge lumbering enterprises.

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