Video gaming and portable entertainment have been interesting industries to watch over the past few years. Conventional wisdom in both has been thrown out the window, and as these areas have evolved, they have offered some key lessons to savvy IT management in their wake.
For most of its existence, video gaming was the province of pimply-faced teen age boys (I know, I once was one) and games and gaming systems engaged in a virtual arms race, trying to outdo each other with increasingly high-quality graphics, outsize production budgets, and massive computing requirements. Gaming was largely a solitary endeavor, with the physical arcade being the only venue for social gaming until the Internet arrived on the scene. But even that innovation required powerful hardware and an obvious technical bent to connect with others over unstable connections and frequent outages.
Microsoft's Xbox marked the first shift in gaming, allowing players to easily "meet" online and battle it out in their favorite games through a standardized and simplified online interface, all while talking trash or coordinating assaults through the included headset, unaware of the technical machinations that made it all possible. Nintendo took a further step in the evolution of gaming, abandoning 3D effects and Hollywood voiceovers for simple and readily playable games that leant themselves towards playing at a among friends, pioneering the so-called "casual gaming" genre. Both added a community element to the once-solitary art of gaming, leaving the pundits "sure winner" in the console wars, the technically superior Playstation 3 largely in the dust. Community won out on hardware.
Similarly, in the portable audio world it was long assumed that sound quality and technical capability were the ultimate objectives of a portable player. Digital audio changed that, with people willing to forgo the ultimate in audio perfection for a digital file they could quickly share among friends (in most cases, illegally), or easily build into a new mix. Bit rates, noise reduction, and DACs were abandoned for the "cool" of the ubiquitous white headphones packaged with the iPod.
People wanted convenience and an ability to play DJ, rather than rely on record labels for pre-packaged content. Apple capitalized on this movement, providing the first digital audio player that looked good and was easy to use, just as the video game world was abandoning tech specs for community and ease of use. Apple's newest devices, the iPhone and iPod Touch take this notion one set further. While the device certainly is a technical marvel, one of the most revolutionary aspects is Apple's App Store. With a few taps you can expand the functionality of the device, no longer having to troll the web and have a high level of technical competence to install an application. Hear about a new game or song from a friend? Three of four taps on the screen and it's making its way over the airwaves to your device. Forget the nuances of the network, OS version or processor type, just tap "Buy now" and you're playing the latest game or figuring out how much to tip in Taipei.
Like the Blackberry, which took a fairly mundane application (e-mail) and "untied" it from a desktop or unwieldy laptop and put it in your pocket, the Xbox, Wii and iPod have succeeded not due to technical capability, but due to the fact that they have become a marketplace-driven platform. Rather than a high-tech experience that relies on user skill to get the most from the platform and ancillary services, a marketplace-driven platform makes the hardware and software seamless, and provides an easy way for the user to tailor his or her experience with the technology exactly to their needs through extensive connectivity and expandability.
Travel a lot? In a matter of minutes you can load your iPod Touch with movies, songs, a world clock application, currency converter, and the weather in Manila. In the mood for a flick on a lazy Sunday afternoon? In a couple of minutes you can have your Xbox 360 stream a recent comedy from Netflix to your TV, then throw in a game disc and chase your friend in France around a virtual city in a stolen hotrod. In short the device presents a standard method for interacting with it, and expands and changes its capabilities based on the user's rapidly-changing requirements.
How does this apply to corporate IT? Too often, we deliver rules-based platforms. Rather than providing a platform where a user can slice and dice business data and model scenarios to suit their whim, we ask them to create trouble tickets, produce business requirements, develop cost/benefit analyses, wait six months, and then maybe we can create a new static report that suits 60% of their needs. We see the marketplace concept as a threat, a Wild West where users can create chaos and wreak havoc with sensitive corporate data. However, this need not be the case. The iPod and Xbox give users liberal access to a wide variety of content but only within their carefully controlled and maintained marketplace. At the most obvious level, you can't throw a PS3 disc into the Xbox 360, and you cannot easily install applications to your iPod that have not been vetted through iPod's App Store. Rather than seeking to "own" the platform, system, marketplace and content, Apple and Microsoft own the marketplace and platform, and anything that complies with the rules of the marketplace can enter the ecosystem. Similarly, corporate IT can loosen its grip on content and end-user applications, and deliver an infrastructure, tools, and marketplace that allow users to create, leverage, and share content within the rules of the marketplace.
Ponder for a moment how a transition to a market-driven platform might change your IT organization. Rather than serving as a monolithic barrier between users and a corporations technical assets, and constantly being involved in discussions of bits and bytes, you can put structures in place that allow users to develop their own content and mini-applications that leverage corporate data and infrastructure. Not only will this lower demand for developers and costly IT support, but strengthen ties between IT and the rest of the organization, as business and IT truly partner to deliver solutions in a marketplace-driven platform, rather than one entity making demands and controlling the purse strings while the other prattles on about what can and cannot be done due to esoteric technical or policy limitations.
Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides IT strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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. He 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 his and may not represent those of his employer.