One of the more interesting uses of consumer technology that I've seen recently was an article about ESPN, the US-based television sports network's use of the Xbox video game console. Combined with a popular sports video game series, the Xbox could simulate plays for various sports, with commentators describing how a play worked, and the Xbox console illustrating the on-field action with high quality, animated players. Essentially, this living room stalwart-a consumer video game, with some custom coding-produced detailed 3D animations that would have required an extremely expensive modeling and rendering engine. With some creative thinking, the television network spent a fraction of the cost of an "enterprise" solution and produced an end output that was likely of higher quality than would have been possible to develop in short order. Whereas an "enterprise" 3D modeling and broadcasting solution would have required a long vendor evaluation and RFP process, the Xbox-based solution required little more than a corporate credit card and some gumption.
There are many situations where enterprise hardware and software are the right solution for a business problem. Storing critical corporate data on a consumer grade NAS purchased from the local office supply store is always a bad idea, just as running your corporate firewall on a $40 consumer "all in one" router is a shortcut out of an IT career. However, there are classes of business problems that lend themselves to looking outside the enterprise box. Generally, these are business problems that require a rapid, cost-effective response, or overlap with something already available in the consumer space.
Compared to enterprise pricing, most of the products in the consumer space are "good enough" when considered in the context of cost. Expensive, rugged, broadcast-grade video cameras have been available for decades, but the explosion of "action cameras" targeted at sports and motorsports enthusiasts has the lowly GoPro line of camera appearing everywhere from network television, to military applications, to vehicle testing. These cameras produce quality that's "good enough" for fast-action shots and are priced such that they're essentially disposable.
In the IT space, there are hundreds of technologies that are likely "good enough," especially as cost becomes a consideration. I've collaborated with teams around the world using Google's "Hangouts," which allow multi-point video conferencing for free. An enterprise multipoint solution is a significant expense, but for ad-hoc collaboration Hangouts is an ideal solution. There are obvious feature deficiencies with a consumer solution like Hangouts or Skype, security being one major concern, but the cost to secure trivial meetings is astronomical compared to the benefit, just like the case of ESPN and the Xbox.
Lack of customization (and why that's a good thing)
Another major benefit of consumer solutions is that they generally lack customization. They're designed to perform a limited set of tasks well out of the box. This compares to enterprise products that are generally expected to be customized or undergo a complex implication once purchased. For the quick and dirty applications where consumer technologies shine, a lack of customization opportunities can be a major benefit. Your users can get to work in the tool immediately and quickly work around shortcomings. With an enterprise tool and the associated implementation, you may get the perfect answer to your business problem, but you get it several months later at the expense of not actually getting work done during that time.
Consumer-based tools also trigger a beneficial mindset shift within large IT departments. Where many are reliant on vendors and accustomed to big-dollar, long lead-time "solutions," consumer technologies force some creativity and restore some of the entrepreneurial gusto that's been lost in a world of enterprise-approved, vendor-centric "solutions."
While not every business problem warrants a consumer technology solution, areas where you need a quick and low cost option, or complex technologies already tackled by a consumer technology, make great candidates. With some creativity, you can delight users with solutions that get them 80% of the way there, at 5% of the time and expense.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company, and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology, as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. Patrick has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are Patrick's alone, and may not represent those of his employer.