Affordable consumer technology causes problems for businesses

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Affordable consumer technology causes problems for businesses

As people lobby to take iPhones and laptops into work, should business embrace or ban consumer technology?

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On a visit to the US shortly after the civil war, Oscar Wilde was asked why he thought the country was so violent. "I can tell you why America is so violent," Wilde replied, "it is because your wallpaper is so ugly."

That might sound like a typical Wildean witticism, and it is, but what Wilde was really expressing was the importance that he and others in the aesthetic movement attributed to beauty and good craftsmanship and its impact on how people behave. To be surrounded by ugliness, the Irish writer believed, led to ugly thoughts and ugly actions.

It might sound like a stretch to apply this philosophy to the current popularity of devices such as the iPhone, but there is a link between good design and productivity, according to some experts. "Although it would be difficult to quantify through a cost-benefit analysis, a happier user is generally considered to be more productive," analyst group Gartner claimed in a 2008 report on employee-owned technology schemes.

At least some of the momentum driving staff to want to use consumer technology in the workplace is that on the whole it not only looks better but, crucially, is a lot more user-friendly than the "good enough" approach taken by many business-technology makers.

The idea that good design leads to greater productivity is a message that companies are beginning to embrace - or forced to accept by their own staff. Other research by Gartner has revealed that by 2010, end users, not the IT department, will decide 50 per cent of enterprise IT procurement decisions.

A recent survey by management consultants Accenture of young office workers in the US - a group it calls "millennials" - revealed that more than one-fifth of them stated that the technology provided by their employer did not meet their expectations, while one-third said they expect not only to use the computer of their choice, but also to access the applications they want.

This kind of picky attitude to technology is not something IT managers have had to face on such a scale before. It's fair to say that aesthetics has never really ranked highly on most corporate IT hardware tenders. Cost, performance and security are usually the main considerations. Of the main hardware makers, only Apple has ever really embraced the concept of design and styling as being essential to IT, but for years that philosophy, combined with higher prices, meant Apple kit was only attractive to a niche group of design and media types.

The launch of the iMac in 1998, and of the iPod in 2001, designed by British designer Jonathan Ive, helped to popularise Apple's aesthetic approach to IT. The launch of the iPhone in June 2007 had an even more disruptive effect on the smartphone market, forcing consumer handset makers such as Nokia, Samsung and LG to follow Apple's lead not just on the touch-screen interface but also the styling of the iPhone.

More fundamentally, however, the rise of the iPhone has also impacted on previously enterprise-focused mobile players such as RIM, maker of the BlackBerry - the de facto leader in mobile email for years. RIM has had to update its line-up of handsets with increasingly sleeker models in order to keep pace with a trend that industry analysts refer to as the "consumerisation of IT" - quite an ugly word for a trend towards better-looking devices.

The movement towards the use of consumer technology in business hasn't only been shaped by the fact that consumer technology is prettier, however. The rise of the internet has played a major role in popularising technology - making it fun - a trend that has accelerated, given the emergence of social networking and online gaming.

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