High tech’s consumer envy

Will the enterprise be neglected while vendors court the masses in search of the really big bucks?

If anything convinced me that the 20th century ethic of high-tech companies being technology-driven is over, it was a panel discussion held during the recent DEMO 2007 conference. If you’re the type who mocks the marketing guys and prefers to hear from the tech guys, you’re making a big mistake. Like it or not, in the 21st century the marketing guys will rule the roost.

Rob Pait, director of global consumer electronics marketing at Seagate Technology, said Seagate is transitioning into a company that answers the needs of the digital generation. Thus the company’s introduction of a 20GB business-card-size hard drive with the consumer-friendly name “DAVE,” as opposed to a scary genius name like “Newton.”

Answering the needs of the digital generation was Pait’s way of saying Seagate wants to be a CE (consumer electronics) company. Obviously, Seagate saw what Apple did with the iPod and decided it wanted some of that. Pait said, in fact, that we could think of the iPod as a hard disk in hot pants.

You might say Seagate has CE envy.

While iPod technology is nothing new, Pait added, Apple has been able to wrap the consumer experience around that technology. No kidding. That’s the difference between CE companies and high-tech companies. It’s called marketing. And marketing is everything from product design to pricing to distribution and finally advertising.

And then, in what could be described as an oxymoron, Enrique Salem, group president of consumer business at Symantec, echoed a similar theme around wanting to capture a mass market: “A lot of what we are doing today — the drive to embrace the Web sphere and Web 2.0 — is something we have been doing for a long time.”

How can you be driving to do something now and yet claim you’ve been doing it for a long time?

Robert Brewin, CTO of software at Sun, added a warning, saying you can’t change company culture overnight. “You need to live the life,” he said.

Sounds good, but can older high-tech companies adopt the CE lifestyle?

InfoWorld’s editor in chief, Steve Fox, asked Pait for a date when the rotating hard disk would disappear in favor of solid-state memory. Despite the fact that Seagate wants to live the CE life, Pait’s response was telling:

“Never,” Pait said, adding that to think solid-state storage would ever replace the hard-disk drive was like believing “we will have starships someday, too.”

What I gleaned from the panelists that night was that, as high tech is lured to the mass market, enterprise customers will play second fiddle. But the corporate culture and the special kind of marketing genius that is almost exclusively owned by the Panasonics, Samsungs, and Sonys of the world is not easily transferred to traditional high-tech companies.

Even the mighty iPod is thus far a one-trick pony for Apple. It remains to be seen whether lightning will strike for a second time, with the iPhone.

To think that a high-tech company can just switch and come up with a mass-market moneymaker is pure fantasy. But until all the high-tech CE wannabe’s learn this lesson, the hard way I am afraid, the enterprise is in for some neglect.

Rest assured, though, many of these companies will come crawling back, wherein the new CEO, whoever he or she might be, will talk about returning to the fundamentals. I, for one, haven’t forgotten those ridiculous 2002 Hewlett-Packard ads about the garage.

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