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Originally published Thursday, July 18, 2013 at 4:22 PM

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Guest: Technology from home has overtaken the business world

You have better information technology at home than in the office, writes guest columnist Donald Farmer.

Special to The Times

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So the "wisdom of crowds" amounts to numerous thumbs up (like) or thumbs down... MORE


WHAT is the biggest recent change in business technology? Cloud computing? Big Data?

Not for me. I believe the real disruption is simpler. Today, you have better information technology at home than in the office.

Look around at your laptop, smartphones and tablet; your gaming system and digital video recorder, your cameras and fitness trackers. Even business systems at smart companies cannot compete with our consumer devices.

This trend, the consumerization of technology, has enormous implications for Seattle’s biggest technology companies, like Microsoft, as well as potential for the local governments to connect with citizens.

Swiping your office smart card in the morning and logging onto the corporate network, you downgrade your technology experience. If you want ease-of-use, great connectivity, or you must navigate and interpret complex information, stay at home.

Surprising? It is really quite natural, given the pace of development and falling consumer prices. For example, one company I know spent more than $1 million on office-to-office video conferencing.

Just two years later, many employees use personal $50 webcams with their favorite video-chat service for quick international meetings. If they don’t like the service, or they want a fancier camera, they switch quickly and cheaply at their own expense. Unlike employees, the IT department cannot change as quickly because of the company’s huge investment.

This trend started with smartphones. Corporations struggled to manage the new technology, but users simply bought their own. We called it Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) and now most major companies have well-documented BYOD strategies. Meanwhile, BYOD has gone beyond devices. Users bring their own software with popular apps for note-taking, collaboration and graphics.

In most cases simplicity, interactivity and a more engaged community inform these preferences. Instant messaging, in Facebook for example, feels more agile and direct than office email. Liking a product or service with a thumbs-up or star rating is easier than writing a full review or calling a customer-service line. The touch interface of tablets is not only efficient, but pleasant to use.

A few years ago, we thought this trend would be set by young, tech-savvy users entering the workplace expecting to be constantly wired. After all, youngsters grow up with phones and gaming devices packed with innovations.

In reality, however, the consumerization of IT happens top-down. It’s easy for IT departments to ignore requests from junior employees to connect their latest gizmos to the network. But when the chief executive gets a new tablet for his or her birthday, next day IT may be compelled to support it.

Remember President Obama’s Blackberry? The CIA said no. He’s still using it. Throughout our economy, compelling technologies are often adopted as lifestyle accessories by senior executives before they are vetted by IT. That opens the door for the rest of us to use our favorite tablets and smartphones, too.

Businesses cannot ignore this shift in influence. Especially here, around the Puget Sound, where technology companies thrive and where our economy increasingly depends on information, users will simply not tolerate IT turning the clock back.

Software companies cannot ignore these new consumers. The megavendors like Microsoft still rely heavily on businesses to buy complex applications, such as Outlook for email, even as users choose simpler apps.

Startups should recognize that they are unlikely to sell a single dominant product line in a technology ecosystem increasingly diversified by consumer choice. It is a meadow, full of flowers — and, yes, some weeds — not a carefully planted field.

Even public services can learn from consumerization. Planning processes, requiring the input of numerous interested parties, might leverage social networks for feedback.

Could you “like” the Sound Transit light-rail extension? That’s not a carefully thought-out contribution to transport planning, but a million likes could change minds. School boards and educators may learn more about parents’ feelings from lively online forums than from formalized, stuffy, public meetings.

However far these changes spread, I’m sure of one thing. The future of business technology is starting at home.

Donald Farmer is vice president of product management for QlikTech, which makes data-analysis software for businesses. Originally from Scotland, he now lives in Woodinville.

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