Relax, IT: Endpoint diversity is nothing to fear

More devices, tools, and platforms mean complexity and work for IT. But they can bring advantages -- and less IT work -- too

Being able to choose the tools you prefer is great for users, but it drives many in IT nuts. After all, diversity means more work to manage. There's a reason IT has driven companies to highly standardized monocultures, and it's not based on some character defect.

Old IT hands remember the nascent days of widespread business computing -- the early to mid-1990s -- when every department had its own computers and software, each different than the rest. People bought "best of breed" tools that ddn't work well together. That was OK at first, before corporate networking, much less the Internet, took off, and sneakernet -- sharing information via paper memos and in meeting presentations -- was the communications channel for most. As soon as real networks and the Internet became common, it became painfully clear how siloed businesses were, how incompatible data and processes were, and how much labor was involved in making the work products and technologies compatible across the systems.

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"Best of breed" and "departmental computing" became dirty terms, and IT and business leaders went about transforming both their technologies and work processes into integrated, standardized, homogenized approaches. That helped businesses take advantage of the Internet and tap into what is now a global supply chain of goods, services, ideas -- and customers. Ever since, IT has guarded against a return to that chaos of incompatibility and inconsistency.

Now IT is told to let it happen all over again. Or at least that's how the consumerization phenomenon appears: Suddenly, it's OK to use different mobile devices with different capabilities, different levels of management, different levels of security, and different types of expertise to support. It's OK to bring in Macs into the pure Windows environment; never mind that the standard management tools often can't manage them, and IT now has to be proficient in yet another technology. And those corporate ERP, Office, and other apps -- they're inferior or nonexistent on non-Windows devices. How do you expect a company to work efficiently, smoothly, and cost-effectively in such a sea of differences?

In many cases, IT is overreacting. SAP has plenty of mobile and Web apps for non-Windows platforms, and Microsoft is doing the same for its CRM software. There are plenty of common protocols that bridge many of the differences. Microsoft's Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) for managing email, calendar, contacts, and device access for PCs, Macs, and mobile devices is one example. Another are the common file formats used by knowledge workers -- .doc, .xls, .ppt, .zip, .pdf, .txt, and .html -- that Windows, Macs, and most mobile devices support, even if with different tools.

As I've explained previously, IT has to move some of the support burden onto the users who choose their own technology; that's only fair. However, it's Microsoft's fault that Office for Mac is a crippled version of what Windows users get and that mobile and cloud Office are even more hobbled, to the point of unusability in many cases. Buyers must demand for that business decision to be changed.

But IT still has to deal with certain changes, and in some cases they'll only get worse as Apple, Google, and Microsoft -- the three companies that matter the most in driving consumerization's technology directions -- favor their proprietary environments in other services, apps, and protocols.

On the other hand, such diversity is causing other vendors to address the problem. Consider the case of mobile management. Research in Motion's successful BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) set the stage for that function being unrelated to managing PCs. When Apple's iOS became popular, the moble device management (MDM) tools that arose likewise were independent of PCs -- mainly because IT saw MDM as a facet of email administration (based on what BlackBerrys did) rather than as a facet of PC management. To be fair to IT, the notion that an iPad should be considered a type of computer has only recently gained broad, though not universal, acceptance.

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