2014: When The Enterprise vs. Consumer Distinction Will Die
Well, that was a fun year for the enterprise. What will 2014 have in store? More of the same, to be sure, but there might be some surprises on the horizon.
As my colleague Michael Singer pointed out, 2013 was very much about watching As The Clippy Turns at Microsoft, with Steve breaking up with Bill and the rest of the board, as the mysterious stranger from Finland breezes into town to save the day or burn the whole town down.
It's hard not to watch Microsoft and wonder what the heck will happen in Redmond. Like Apple, it's typically one of the first software companies that users of all stripes—consumer and business alike—first became familiar with. Microsoft is one of those iconic companies, and its influence on our technological advancement is deep and profound.
Earlier this year, I wrote, with not a little emphasis, that Microsoft's decision to become a devices and services company was likely to scare the bejeezus out of its enterprise users.
See also Microsoft, Split Yourself Up—Or Your Enterprise Customers Are Going To Walk
I stand by this assertion. If Microsoft continues to define enterprise software as a separate class of software that needs its own engineering, support and sales channels, then it should assure enterprise users of SQL Server, Windows Server and SharePoint that its dalliances with Nokia and Windows Phone aren't going to take attention away from the enterprise customers who are forking over big bucks for Microsoft-licensed software.
If enterprises think they're getting the short end of the stick with Microsoft, the company may have little choice but to split—or at the very least, sharply define the focus of its business units—so enterprise customers know they are getting what they are paying for.
But what if this perception is all wrong?
In The Cloud, No One Cares If You're A Suit
As Amazon Web Services, Windows Azure and OpenStack-based cloud services continue to flourish amid explosive growth in the use of mobile services, the dividing line between "consumer" and "enterprise" software users will continue to blur.
Consider the now-ubiquitous phrase "consumerization of the enterprise." This term is a neat little way to describe the way users have asserted far more influence over corporate IT by personally adopting hardware and software that they want to incorporate into their business workday. "Bring your own device" is one popular trend in consumerization of the enterprise, as is "provisioning with plastic"—i.e., using a credit card and an Amazon account to spin up instances of servers in minutes rather than waiting days for IT to do it.
What a lot of people tend to forget—myself included—is that this trend is a two-way street. It's not just about how consumer devices and apps influence the enterprise, but how the enterprise influences consumers as well.
Data management, security, online storage, social collaboration—these are all elements of enterprise software that are bleeding into the consumer realm. As consumer software continues to be "uplifted" with enterprise-class features, the line dividing home and business users gets much blurrier.
Very soon, we may come to realize that there is little to no difference in the code of enterprise versus consumer services, and that what really matters is the context. How is the data being used and who has the greatest influence?
Companies like Facebook and Google have already made this conceptual jump: Who sees data at a given point makes a huge difference in how that data is used. But we tend to look at companies like Microsoft, IBM, SAP and Oracle through the lens of the old boundaries: enterprise software is serious and consumer software is the manna for the masses.
One Prediction To Rule Them All
Back to Microsoft. If the company in fact get ahead of this trend—which ReadWrite editor-in-chief Owen Thomas calls "enterprisification of the consumer"—then it may come out of its current tribulations poised to be a company that can serve users in whatever context they have to be in: personal use to business workloads.
This prediction, with some variations, can also apply to all of the legacy enterprise companies. IBM, SAP and Oracle aren't getting called to split up like Microsoft, but they are undergoing trials of their own, working to adapt themselves to a world where users can flip their roles like a switch in nearly any location.
That is the holy grail for the enterprise in 2014: To stop thinking in terms of enterprise vs. consumer and realize that it is all the same. Once enterprise vendors make that conceptual jump, then life might become a little bit simpler and success easier to find.