% fortune -ae paul murphy

The iPad in business

Last week's newsletter from Information Week referenced an article by senior editor Chris Murphy (obviously not my evil twin either) reporting on a pilot project in which iPads were issued to 40 sales personnel in Mercedes Benz dealerships - with the initial focus on letting them access a customer financial planning application from the dealership floor.

The headline lessons he sees as learnt from the pilot are:

1. People want the iPad 3G cellular version

2. Coding for the iPad's fairly easy (compared with the iPhone)

3. It's about marketing, and sharing in the Apple glow

4. People want to close the deal: Signatures

5. People want to print from the iPad

6. People don't need a keyboard

7. This is only the start

but to understand them in context you'll need to read his full article.

Implicit in most IT pilot projects of this kind is the assumption that if you hand the user something new and useful, that user will find ways to make it work within, or around, the rest of the infrastructure - and the usual unstated corollary is that the less proprietary and restrictive your infrastructure, the greater the flexibility it offers users in doing this and so the less disruptive the change process is to the IT organization.

Thus the most interesting thing I see in Murphy's report is that the reason the iPad amounts to a disruptive, rather than additive, technology for this company is that its flexibility contradicts assumptions built into their existing backend applications and processes. Specifically, focusing the pilot around a single, and quite narrow, application suggests that the company's IT thinking and architecture is tightly silo-ed -and therefore that both the limitations on the pilot and the changes they had to make in the pilot application reflect the constraints their view of how IT works put on the company's ability to benefit from user focused innovation.

Consider, for example, their discovery that it wasn't hard to make an application written for IE work with Safari - sounds good, right? well, except that had the application environment been any competent variation on LAMP/SAMP no adaptation would have been necessary and comments like this (quoting from the story):

The company can't yet track whether salespeople are accessing MB Advantage via PC or iPad; it expects to have that capability by November.

would be exceedingly difficult to explain.

More subtly, the story points at the conflict between user and IT views of what's good for the company - even linking to another story quoting Steve Jobs as saying:

What I love about the consumer market that I always hated about the enterprise market is that we come up with a product, we try to tell everybody about it, and every person votes for themselves. They go yes or no. And if enough of them say yes, we get to come to work tomorrow. You know? That's how it works. It's really simple. That's why in the enterprise market it's not so simple. The people that use the products don't decide for themselves. And the people that make those decisions sometimes are confused. We love just trying to make the best product in the world for people, and having them tell us by how they vote with their wallets whether we're on track or not.

Job's use of "confused" here, reflects, I think, his audience and context - less constrained usage would feature terms like "arrogant", "self-interested", "closed minded", "luddite" and "uninformed" to reflect user frustration with IT decisions made on value to IT, not value to users.

Look closely, for example, at this bit from the discussion of lesson "7: This is only the start"

The company isn't sure what its next step in mobility will be, but dealers are likely to push the iPad's use, now that they have it in hand. Already, one Mercedes dealer uses a remote-access app to let a salesperson access his or her desktop via the iPad. It's easy to see how salespeople might use a tool for checking vehicle inventory while on the lot, for example. "This is the start of looking into what [dealers] could do with the tablet PC," Kanzleiter says.

What I see here is classic blinkered IT thinking: in reality, the iPad isn't a tablet PC and every MB sales person getting one is going to want the applications they use moved to the servers - and that desktop PC sent to the landfill.

As Murphy says, iDevices are coming to the enterprise whether IT wants them to or not, but what he doesn't say - presumably in deference to his advertisers - is that what's coming with them is the end of the client-server era as users push IT to adopt the Sun/NCD network computing model in which the display is just a front end for data and applications across the network.

So what's the bottom line? simple really: iDevices are facing enterprise IT management with the same choice the tea parties have set for American Republicans: get on board, or get run over.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.