The future ends at the firewall
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Be warned: for many office workers, life in the internet age is about to get much more frustrating.
New services from companies such as Google and Skype and the spread of domestic broadband access have created a new generation of digitally aware consumers. Having access to free video conferencing, or being able to examine the world in exquisite detail on a programme such as Google Earth, has awakened home computer users to the expanding possibilities of life on the web.
When they get to work, however, these same computer users are starting to find that many of the digital goodies they have come to expect are out of reach. That is more than just a frustration for individual workers: as more technology innovation shifts to the web, it could slow the pace at which many new technologies are adopted and prevent companies from reaping the full productivity benefits.
The new reliance on personal experimentation on the internet as a way to spread new technology at work was summed up recently by Ray Ozzie, chief technical officer at Microsoft. In a landmark memo to Microsoft staff, intended to accelerate the software company’s shift to the web, he outlined a new approach to technology adoption that has little to do with the efforts of the corporate IT department.
“[Technology] products are now discovered through a combination of blogs, search keyword-based advertising, online product marketing and word of mouth,” he wrote. “This is not just true of consumer products: even enterprise products now more often than not enter an organisation through the internet-based research and trial of a business unit that understands a product’s value.”
Yet just as a new wave of internet-based technology breaks, many workers are no longer being given a chance to try it out in this way. Slow corporate networks, the fear of exposure to computer viruses and concerns about the escalating costs of maintaining large numbers of PCs have led many companies instead to clamp down on personal experimentation.
“In a lot of companies, the desktop is locked down – only the IT department has access to it,” says Dave Girouard, general manager of Google’s enterprise division. “There’s no question that consumer technology is racing ahead at a breakneck pace. Enterprise technology kind of slogs along; the adoption rates are much slower.”
The chasm that is starting to open between the experience of using computers at home and in the office is based on two things. One is the availability of bandwidth: most companies cannot afford to meet the soaring expectations of their workers. The other is the ability to try out new software applications and services that live on the web.
When it comes to bandwidth, even the technology professionals are starting to feel the frustration. John Vogt-Nilsen, who runs the communications network at Orbital Sciences, a US maker of rockets, says he has an internet connection at home that runs at 10 megabits per second; by comparison, the capacity of the outbound internet connection for his company’s 1,800 employees amounts to only 6 mbps.
As more people experience high bandwidth at home, the level of frustration at the office will rise, he predicts. “There is going to be a huge phenomenon of people demanding bandwidth [at work]: I can’t satisfy that,” he says.
Data-intensive internet audio and video account for much of the new craving for bandwidth, says Bobby LaRocca, director of information security for the Palm Beach school district in Florida. “Streaming radio and TV are killing our bandwidth,” he says.
Blocking access to internet-based entertainment services is one way to conserve network capacity. Palm Beach, for instance, has blocked the internet radio services that were starting to consume an inordinate amount of the network, says Mr LaRocca.
But other bandwidth-
hungry applications that have a more direct bearing on office or school life are also starting to proliferate. The school district has just increased the capacity of its network from 45 mbps to 256 mbps, but even an increase of that scale may not be enough to cope with the new video conferencing service that the district wants to run over its network. “It’s probably going to hit [the new bandwidth], and hit it good,” says Mr LaRocca.
The growing reliance on network-based applications raises a second question: how easily can workers get access to potentially productivity-enhancing technology tools that lie beyond their company’s firewall?
This is more than just a mild annoyance – the rate at which office workers adopt many new technologies could be at risk.
“A lot of the innovations of the last five years have started out among rogue groups of [office] users and then become mainstream,” says John Kish, chief executive officer of Wyse, which makes stripped-down desktop computers designed for use with applications that reside on the network.
Workers who try out new technologies for themselves, without the official approval of the IT department, have often proved far more adept at finding and employing services that bring direct benefits to their work.
What happens when corporate firewalls block this grassroots approach to technology adoption?
Enlightened companies are starting to loosen the controls on their workers, claims Mr Girouard at Google. “Gradually, organisations are waking up to the fact that they need to give their employees access to more productivity-enhancing technology – often that just means getting out of the way,” he says.
Yet the trend in most corporate IT departments is still moving in the opposite direction. The threat from computer viruses has led most big companies to block their workers’ ability to download software from the internet, restricting their access to new services.
New ways of delivering internet services are helping to limit this problem, says Mr Girouard. Using a new approach to designing internet services, known as Ajax, companies such as Google have been able to enhance the experience of using a web browser. That has meant that workers can get access to more advanced services without needing to download software on to their own machine.
However, that has not done much to liberate the average office drone suffering from technology lock-down. According to Mr Kish at Wyse, this is simply the new reality of office life. Deciding for yourself what technology would help you work more effectively may seem appealing, but it no longer fits with the need to control IT more closely. “It is being outweighed by the realities in front of the business,” he says.
The message, for today’s increasingly frustrated office workers: just get used to it.
POWER FAILURES: HOW WORKERS GAINED AND LOST COMPUTER CONTROL
Until recently, workers had been enjoying increasing influence over the technology they use at work.
Minicomputers. The arrival of departmental computers broke the IT department’s stranglehold through the mainframe and ushered in an age of experimentation.
Spreadsheets. Desktop personal computers accelerated the demystification of office technology and gave many managers their first taste of hands-on computing. Spreadsheets were among the first tools to be taken up enthusiastically, enabling managers to model financial information for themselves.
Personal digital assistants. Palm, Psion and other personal organisers allowed workers to bring their own technology tools to work. When they tried to “synch” these devices with data on office PCs, the line between personal and office technology use started to blur.
Instant messaging. Communication tools have become the new battleground between workers and the IT department. Instant messaging, web-based e-mail and now online video conferencing have been taken up by millions of consumers. But at work, many find themselves limited to using a corporate e-mail account and a telephone.
“Blaster” worm. The fast- spreading threat, in August 2003, followed a series of other virus and worm attacks, leading IT departments to reimpose control. It signalled the end of the computing free-for-all.
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