IT in middle of merged environments

As the line between home and office technology blurs, IT managers and technology bosses will be wise to understand the high-tech innovations launched for both markets and to factor it into their strategic thinking.

As the line between home and office technology blurs, IT managers and technology bosses will be wise to understand the high-tech innovations launched for both markets and to factor it into their strategic thinking.

Convergence is a fact of life, and it is affecting IT at many levels.

"No one works at an office anymore. Now you are out and about doing personal things and business things because you are away so long," says Dean Douglas, telecomms industry head at IBM Global Services.

Companies that appreciate workers doing both personal and buisness tasks at the same time are allowing for that kind of capability in their technology platforms.

"It's not even a matter of adjusting the tech platform. All a company has to do is just release its people to take advantage of that. Give them the network cards, for example, and make sure they have the appropriate VPN security in place," Douglas says.

The fact is, workers are coming back to the office and regaling their co-workers with tales of the technology they can use at home -- and asking why it can't be done in the office. Such questions might be a minor annoyance when coming from a middle manager, but what if the questions are put by someone in senior management? The technology boss better have an answer.

Attendees of the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and Macworld Conference & Expo already know that those answers are coming from some unlikely companies, including Sony, Nokia and Apple. In wireless communications, especially the cellphone segment, it is now a two-horse race between Microsoft with its Pocket PC Phone Edition 2002 and Nokia with its Series 60 platform.

Ask Nokia, the world's largest provider of handsets, to describe itself and brace yourself for the response. "We are a software company," says Victor Brilon, the company's Texas-based Java applications manager.

In late 2001, Nokia used Comdex, not CES, to announce a cellphone operating environment, including the operating system Symbian, the browser Opera, and a Java-based application development architecture that it will license -- "at a nominal fee", Brilon notes -- to other handset manufacturers.

When asked directly if the company trying to pre-empt a Microsoft move into the same space with its OS, browser, and Compact .Net environment, Nokia executives say no and offer the usual cant that Series 60 is open to anyone including Microsoft. Sound familiar? Substitute the word "Windows" in the sentence above and it is the standard answer Microsoft gives when asked if they are trying to corner the market in any particular field.

Nokia executives go as far as to say that the current SPOT (Smart Personal Object Technology) initiative, one-way data streams sent to any device with a subcarrier FM processor, is an attempt to rival the need for data on handsets provided through a carrier channel.

Microsoft's SPOT general manager Bill Mitchell responds indirectly to the charge. "We certainly believe that there is not one layer of technology for all. We believe that there are many solutions to allow just about every device out there to receive data and right now there is no other very low-power way to get the kind of reach that you can with [SPOT's] Direct Band network," Mitchell says.

Mitchell also hints at a future Microsoft direction when he says that wireless communications will really get interesting when there are two-way, peer-to-peer interactions involved.

Apple -- like Nokia, a company that straddles home and business markets -- is suddenly finding itself in a unique position where the business market may be coming to it.

With a down US economy and the market's need for enterprise applications hitting a saturation point, hardware and software companies are looking to the small-to-medium business market (SMB) for growth, say industry analysts.

Targeting that market over the last 12 months, Apple introduced Xserve, its first server hardware, and Jaguar, its Unix operating system. In January, Apple upped the stakes with a presentation program called Keynote that many say is directed at the heart of SMB: companies lacking large IT departments that need the quality and power of PowerPoint but do not have the professional media staff to learn Microsoft's complex application.

There is no doubt that Apple will use the same technology in its business applications, too. For example, Apple moved all of its configuration data in OS X from proprietary files to XML. The document system underlying Keynote, which may be extended to other apps, is entirely XML-based and can be generated in other applications.

One industry analyst says the steps Apple is taking now are part of a long-term strategy.

"The movement to integration for the OS, the UI and the application has been going on since Steve Jobs got back. He has given software engineering head Avie Tevanian a charter that says 'make it simple and make it integrated and drive all the apps around Jaguar and Rendezvous [peer networking technology]'. Apple is building a case to take the wireless network and servers and make it more popular within small business," says Tim Bajarin, principal analyst at Creative Strategies in San Jose.

Apple, which did not announce a handheld device of its own at the January Macworld show, is also integrating Bluetooth into its portable products as a way to obviate the need for PDAs. Nokia now offers cellphones with Bluetooth as well, with a similar end goal: sidestepping PDAs.

Home and business collide

As the battle for the living room heats up, this time between Microsoft and Sony, hybrid technology that straddles both home and office will again play a key role. A few years ago, no one would have suspected that Sony would be selling the Clie Wireless Home Networking Bundle, the Wi-Fi in a box idea that Microsoft adopted just last year.

Today the non-technical user-base is truly knowledgeable about the power of information access, says IBM's Douglas. IT managers need to make sure they are able to provide broad-based access for their employees because in return, employees will use it for the company's benefit.

"We are getting those kinds of [Apple] iLife integration requests today at Global Services: an insurance claim goes in electronically but the pictures are typically mailed in separately. The new requirements are that the claim and the pictures go in at the same time. That kind of integration has huge cost savings if it is done as plumbing in the back office," Douglas says.

Digital convergence is already happening with multimedia databases, using native XML as a content server. Media companies such as CNN can put XML tags on film clips, archive them in a multimedia database, and then easily integrate them into other applications.

But convergence has its downside too, according to John Jordan at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young in New York.

Jordan points to a recent decision at Disney that in essence "de-supported all PDAs. It directed employees to desist by a given date from bringing any PDA into the office or plugging it into the network.

"[In this case] there are good and thoughtful reasons to do that," Jordan says. "A Disney employee could walk out of their office with Disney IP [intellectual property] for the next Disney character and could share it across the internet."

Jordan also believes that technologies used by consumers in their home are putting IT managers in a real bind. Typically, IT managers are the people who say "no" to requests concerning enterprise technology. But as users become tech savvy, senior management is looking to improve its footing with the employee base by smiling on the convergence trend.

"A high-level question for IT now is, 'What is the perception among our user base and how do we manage it?'" says Jordan.

IBM's Douglas believes that at the end of the day, the IT or business manager looking at consumers and enterprises as a customer base has to factor in the increased blurring between the use of technology in the office environment and the use of technology at home.

"Go to CES. But even more important, look around the room and say 'What are the kinds of things that I think are cool?' Because IT's end-users are equally savvy and they have the same level of requirements [as you]," Douglas advises.

Schwartz is an editor at large in InfoWorld US’ news department. Send letters for publication in Computerworld NZ to Computerworld Letters.

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