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Consumer Appeal

Consumer Appeal

Your end users are downloading Skype and sharing links to company Web pages on Del.icio.us. But don't panic. Although emerging consumer applications can pose security risks, here are five that offer business benefits if you manage them well.

Reader ROI

  • Which emerging technologies offer benefits to business
  • The risks of letting employees use unapproved software and devices
  • How to manage unauthorized applications on the network

When Paul Tang first downloaded Google's desktop search application, he was impressed by its speed and power. Instead of painstakingly looking for data and files on his hard drive, he could find them with the ease of a Web search. However, Tang, chief medical information officer at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF), quickly realized that the slick application could also be dangerous.

Tang saw that this early version of Google Desktop (it was released in 2004) would index encrypted Web pages from the hospital's online patient health system, caching the data on his PC. "We take great pains to avoid leaving personal health information on PCs, and we noticed that the search tool was doing that by default," says Tang. Tang didn't ban the software, but the hospital advised users to change its settings so that encrypted Web pages - including those within its medical records system - would be excluded from searches.

Tang isn't as worried now. Google has since changed that default setting, so it no longer leaves cached information on a user's computer, and Tang counts himself an enthusiastic user of the software, among other consumer applications. But as a guardian of patient privacy, Tang knows he has to keep his eyes open for potential vulnerabilities. "Consumer technologies are useful and powerful - and difficult to regulate," he says. "You have to be careful and conscientious about how you use them."

The Consumer Tidal Wave

Not long ago, corporations were on the leading edge of technology adoption, providing employees with better equipment and software than they could purchase on their own. Now, however, consumer applications are easy and fun to use, and often free; in many cases, they also work better than corporate software. And the tables have turned on CIOs, as employees download software from the Internet, bring their handheld devices to the office and merge their home computing life with work. Concerned about losing control of their networks, some IT departments have banned all unauthorized software and electronics from the workplace.

While it's true that consumer technologies such as desktop search, Internet telephone services such as Skype and devices such as iPods can weaken network security, the trend is hard to stop. In many cases users are downloading software unbeknownst to the IT department. In a Gartner survey conducted last year, half of the respondents reported that more than 60 percent of their IT users were employing consumer-grade software, whether approved or not.

Furthermore, employees may be on to something: Emerging consumer applications, when adapted to the enterprise, can make workers more productive and cut IT costs. In fact, Gartner predicts that between 2007 and 2012, the majority of new information technologies that enterprises adopt will have their roots in the consumer market.

Instead of building a wall to keep consumer technologies out, CIOs need to be pragmatic and provide a place for employees' favourite applications. A willingness to let employees experiment requires management strategies and policies for using external applications that will prevent serious security and privacy breaches. It will also mean, in some cases, making sure networks and architecture are configured to handle the consumer gadgets and software.

"CIOs are in a balancing act," says Michael Gotta, principal analyst at the Burton Group. "Suddenly there are all of these lightweight, easy-to-use applications that people want to work with, but IT still has to make sure they're meeting security and compliance requirements."

Among dozens of technologies gaining momentum in the consumer market, we look at five that are making their way into the enterprise. These technologies - social networking software, Skype, desktop search, handhelds and mashups - exemplify the most important trends in software that will have an impact on business.

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