The Consumerization Canary
The myth of the "Dropbox effect," and how consumer technology really benefits the enterprise.
Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Internet was still young, it was common to hear pitches from startups and other boosters that began with the phrase, "If the Internet continues growing at the current pace...." My daughter was also young at that time, very young and small, and I'd think to myself, "If she continues growing at the current pace, our house will literally not be able to contain her."
It's a common fallacy to think that things will continue on a straight line from where they are now, and it's also common to think that a technology trend that affects the enterprise will wind up overwhelming the enterprise. There's a case to be made that we're experiencing this hype cycle with regard to the phenomenon ofthe "consumerization of IT," and possibly even the BYOD trend.
The website Venturebeat recently published a pretty compelling takedown of this hype cycle as relates to something that's come to be known as the "Dropbox effect." This is the notion that once a "freemium" service like Dropbox takes hold in the consumer world and then jumps the species barrier to the enterprise, it will spread uncontrollably through the enterprise and overwhelm traditional enterprise systems for accomplishing the task that the freemium service enables. The Venturebeat author cites several experts who question the validity of the "Dropbox effect," culminating with a quote from a blog authored by Ben Horowitz, Marc Andreeson's VC partner:
"Innovative entrepreneurs imagine a world where consumers find great solutions to help their employers in the same way that they find great products to help themselves. In the imaginary enterprise, these individuals will then take the initiative to convince their colleagues to buy the solution. Through this method, if the product is truly great, there will be little or no need to actually sell it.
"The actual enterprise works a bit differently. Meet the new enterprise customer. He's a lot like the old enterprise customer.
"The actual enterprise works a bit differently. Meet the new enterprise customer. He's a lot like the old enterprise customer."
The article notes that enterprises still buy through established channels and procedures, and still require enterprise-caliber functionality for major technology elements like cloud storage. The author concludes: "In short, the Dropbox model didn't even work for Dropbox."
This is not to say that consumer technologies don't enter the enterprise, and that you should be unconcerned about them; enterprise users do take it upon themselves to download apps like Dropbox--or, to take an example more directly related to communications, Skype--and they then transfer the usage to their work lives when they see a task where these applications could help. So you still need security and policy to address non-standard applications, because they will show up in your enterprise.
In fact, these applications often point the enterprise toward more cost-effective or efficient models for communicating (Skype) or handling enterprise data (Dropbox). They function as a leading indicator of capabilities that your users have discovered they need. But that doesn't mean that consumerized, freemium services, "liberated" from IT, are necessarily the best way for these capabilities to be delivered to enterprise users.
End users and the folks who provide them with their personal technology in their personal lives are great at discovering new technologies. Enterprise IT is great at scaling and hardening that technology to meet the needs of the business. The two aspects are complementary, not competitive.