The lessons IT must learn from Apple

Apple has wormed its way into the broad population, creating new expectations -- and a model -- for IT

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What this signifies is the effect of the Apple ecosystem: It's cliché to say that Apple products are easier to use than rivals, but they almost always are. They also work well together, creating a virtuous cycle, a sort of user interface version of the network effect known as Metcalfe's Law (named after the Ethernet inventor, venture capitalist, and former InfoWorld publisher, Bob Metcalfe).

You see this effect in the real world. The iPod or iPhone is a gateway drug to more Apple products. iTunes and now iCloud encourage the addition of more Apple products to share your digital goodies and -- more important -- your user experience. There's truth to the joke that once you go Mac, you never go back. Regular readers know that, despite my decidedly PC origins, I followed this path to an Apple ecosystem. I see it regularly among not just my tech-savvy friends but my much larger circle of "regular" folks who aren't in the tech business and don't salivate over technology devices.

The Apple quotient continues to rise, and the only other platform that evinces any sort of comparable joy and loyalty has been Android -- but only briefly, as people discovered the benefits of a smartphone versus a regular cellphone. Their next devices have invariably been iPhones, once they realized that Android's limited interoperabillity with the rest of the technology world stands in sharp contrast to Apple's ecosystem. (Except for one IT friend who's never forgiven Apple for its chatty AppleTalk network protocol of the 1980s and won't darken his door with Apple products to this day -- the rest of us just smile knowingly.)

The lessons for corporate computing
When you've experienced positivity -- whether that's a great work environment, the taste of real food from local farmers, or computing that both just works and works naturally -- it's hard to accept less. But when you arrived to the office, that's usually what you got: Rigidly controlled sytems poorly integrated with each other and your actual work processes. Software that forces a mental shift as you move from one tool to another. Bewildering configurations or no configurability.

It's often either chaotic or overly homogenized -- and often inferior. The technology at work stands in stark, unflattering contrast to the technology you have at home, especially if it's Apple technology.

Now, only a fool would believe Apple technology is flawless. There are bugs and gotchas in Apple's products (such as OS X Lion's Mail tendency to stop getting mail in a multiaccount setting), as well as puzzling limitations (such as the lack of the sophisticated repeating-event options for calendar entries long available in Windows and BlackBerry calendars). Nonetheless, they're significantly better products, and people really notice and appreciate that fact.

User experience rules. IT's been exhorted since the 1980s to become savvy about user experience. Heck, I used to edit a column called Human Factors in the mid-1980s for IEEE Software magazine advocating what still isn't done nearly 30 years later. But most software and hardware remains poorly designed, if designed at all. Apple has shown that good design is not only possible but can be made innate to a broad product line over years and years.

Now that users have begun to assert control over the technology they use, they no longer have to wait for IT to get it in its own software or the software and hardware it acquires -- they'll get it themselves. Nor do they have to accept poorly designed tools from IT or the vendors IT has chosen -- they'll get them elsewhere. After all, there are plenty of cloud service providers, social technology providers, and app store options -- plus of course computers, tablets, smartphones, and hardware -- they can choose from instead of IT. And they will.

Benevolent dictatorship can work. Ironically, Apple's highly controlled approach to its ecosystem mirrors that of many IT organizations. Apple's ecosystem works well because Apple has decided how it should work, and it usually ignores anything outside of that worldview. As the Silicon Valley joke goes, it's Steve Jobs' world and we just live in it. Apple's decisions usually involve more than a top exec's whims and instead come from a heavily examined belief held by Apple's leadership and those it hires. But at the end of the day, it is Apple's ecosystem, and you accept it or go elsewhere. Most users who live in it not only accept it, but embrace it.

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