Consumer Web Software Seeps Into the Workplace

Office tech is getting a casual Friday makeover, says Farhad Manjoo, who explains why we should celebrate the Facebookization of the enterprise.

There is a story that Google chief information officer Ben Fried likes to tell about his old job, as the managing director of Morgan Stanley. "There was this intern who came to work in the research department one summer," Fried says. "After a couple of days of orientation and getting a good look at the technology that the IT department had given him, one day this guy decides to come in with his own computer and a great big monitor. He sets it up at an empty desk near the window, and he plugs in a cellular modem to get online. He never connected to the company network at all. He used all of his own technology. And you know what? He was the highest-rated intern in his class."

Fried likes this story because it neatly illustrates the crisis in corporate tech departments these days. The best new gadgets and applications that have changed your life recently -- the iPhone, the iPad, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube -- are designed for the new consumer market created by the Internet, not the IT customers who once made the world's tech decisions. (Look at that BlackBerry! It lets you email from anywhere!) Hamstrung by having to maintain backward compatibility and bureaucratic security and legal policies, now the IT guys are getting left behind. Why accept Outlook 2003 when you can just use Gmail?

We should all hail the Facebookization of the tech industry. In our never-ending search for the newest and best, we home users are wildly promiscuous: We'll flit from Friendster to MySpace to Facebook to whatever comes next, because we can. As a result, the tech companies that want our money must work much harder than the firms selling to IT guys. They have to constantly make their products smaller, faster, more powerful, easier to use, all the while keeping prices low.

Tech companies that have traditionally targeted consumers are thriving in this new market for workplace apps. Apple and Google are prime examples -- the iPhone, iPad, Android, and services such as Gmail and Google Docs were designed for home users, yet they've all snuck into the office, thanks to the employees' homegrown enthusiasm.

But it's not just established firms that are making gains in this market. Putting a consumer-friendly face on some of the most dreaded areas of "enterprise" technology -- processes that go by inscrutable acronyms like CRM, ERP, and T&E -- has become a hot field for a range of startups. For instance, consider Expensify, a web-based app that aims to simplify how office workers submit expenses (a paperwork-heavy process that is about as much fun as emergency orthodontic work). First, Expensify logs in to your credit-card account to download your recent purchase history; using this information, the site automatically generates an expense report, complete with receipts, that you can send to your manager. In other words, Expensify works pretty much like Mint, the popular consumer-finance site. And that's exactly the point. Other novel business apps such as 37Signals's Highrise, which handles customer relationships, or Workday, the cloud-based human resources and payroll app, take this same approach, replicating the best aspects of consumer web software for office workers (and taking on the security and legal issues).

"Facebook is training half a billion people how to collaborate on the web," says Kraig Swensrud, senior vice president of product marketing at Salesforce.com, which has just released Chatter, a social-networking application for businesses. Chatter looks nothing like traditional corporate software; in its design and overall mission, it mimics Facebook and Twitter. "We thought that if we build it just like Facebook, everyone is going to know instantly how to use it," Swensrud says. It's a wise plan. If business tech doesn't move fast to catch up with all the wonderful things we're used to at home, the office drones could well join that intern in ditching the corporate network.

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  • Travis Arnold

    it makes sense that business apps are adopting consumer application feature and function. when the software giants were building for the enterprise, consumer software didn't really exist. now, you have everyone from 2nd graders, middle-agers and retirees on facebook that have started to demand functional, usage-centric solutions.