How far can consumerization go for enterprise apps?

During VMworld this week, talk of consumerization — or the rise of consumer applications and devices in corporate settings — was everywhere, stemming from VMware CEO Paul Maritz’s and CTO Steve Herrod’s mobile- and application-centric keynotes. Included in Herrod’s presentation was talk of a new Dropbox-like application called Project Octopus that will let users safely store, access and share corporate documents. It all so sounded so promising, and then someone asked me whether it will actually get used.

If employees already use Dropbox, she asked, why would they want to use a different service to do essentially the same thing while at work? The truth is that I don’t know. I can see why employers would want them to use a separate service, but will employees stand for it?

I tend to agree with my colleague Stacey Higginbotham, who noted while reporting on VMware’s mobile play, “While enterprises will love the ability to control who can access their data, employees may not want to give up the ability to use their own tools and choose who they share their files with.” Of course, it’s not so much a question about Dropbox or Project Octopus as much as it is about the role of consumer applications in corporate settings in general.

There’s no denying that consumerization is real. Employees really are demanding the ability to use their personal devices rather than company-issued BlackBerrys and laptops. By and large, employers seem content let them do so because it takes productivity to a whole new level. That’s one of the megatrends driving VMware’s new focus on mobility and applications: if personal devices can’t be locked down from a security standpoint, it wants to make sure enterprise applications and data can be.

Consumerization even has made its way into traditional enterprise applications thanks to the advent of Software as a Service. Business users accustomed to clean, simple web-based consumer applications in their personal lives expect the same thing from web-based business applications. As Zendesk COO Zack Urlocker asked in a post last year, “Why buy and manage complex infrastructure or applications when a simpler approach will get results faster and cheaper?”

But there’s a difference between applications that either emerge from business settings or that are only relevant to businesses, and consumer-focused applications that prove themselves useful in business settings. Beyond social tools such like Socialcast and Chatter (no one could legitimately suggest Facebook, for example, as the inter-office communication channel), I’m not so certain it will be easy to get employees to give up the consumer applications they’ve already begun using for business needs.

Dropbox is just one example. Look at Amazon Web Services, which grew popular among enterprise developers despite not having been sanctioned by IT departments. Despite an endless supply of vendors selling private cloud software and alternative hosting providers pushing “enterprise cloud computing,” AWS still dominates cloud computing. Maybe that’s because anyone within the organization who has used AWS really likes it and won’t settle for less. Or look to Google Apps, which has wormed its way into many companies by this point.

Application providers aren’t stupid, either. When AWS and Google recognized the money to be made by selling to businesses, they got started with all sorts of security and identity management improvements. They both even undertook the effort to achieve certification for the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) to be able to win lucrative federal-government deals. It seems only logical that other new consumer-based services will follow the money, too.

Given that iPads, iPhones, Android, AWS, Gmail and so many other tools have made the transition from the consumer world to the business world, it just seems a bit off base to suggest that enterprise applications mimicking useful consumer applications will suddenly catch on. Sure, companies might buy them and mandate their use, but that doesn’t mean employees still won’t use their preferred services, or that they’ll be happy about the change.

Feature image courtesy of Flickr user Pete Prodoehl.

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