A look at technology building blocks and the consumerization of enterprise.
This past January, I found myself wandering through the South Hall of the Las Vegas Convention Center at CES. I was in search of a new, highly reviewed set of True Wireless Stereo (TWS) in-ear headphones. This year’s CES is now a faint memory, but the show has been predictive relative to the enterprise market for years. I’ve been going for more than a decade, and I have seen many fundamental technologies come and go. I’m sure you have favorites in both the “hype” and “hope” buckets.
Back to the TWS story! Obviously, they wouldn’t allow all 170,000 CES attendees to put these bad boys in their ears, but the specs were solid and they looked…well…they looked pretty much like any other pair!
Walking around the corner, I was able to put on a pair of over-the-ear, high-fidelity, audiophile-grade headphones that would set you back almost two grand. Wow! I mean Wow! Price notwithstanding, it was refreshing to see a product like that among a bunch of uninspired, commoditized, disposable products littering the convention floor. You could tell that the builders really cared.
Most of us would be overspending unnecessarily to get true audiophile-grade equipment. At the same time, most of us would be missing out by simply accepting the lowest-cost option. There’s a big middle out there, and it has some great products in it.
Enterprise Companies At CES
Why does an enterprise-level company make the pilgrimage to CES? Although I don’t go just to walk the show floor, plenty of people do. (I recommend that you read Steven Sinofsky’s annual recap, which is both comprehensive and insightful. Read it here: www.sndcom.us/sinofsky-ces.) I attend CES for private meetings because everybody who’s anybody is there. The consumer supply chain is almost indistinguishable from the enterprise these days, and we need to talk to them.
I am the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of a global enterprise-communication company that prides itself on connecting humans together. Our industry, like many others, is in the midst of our own burning platform battle; old and new actors are using new technology to create great products, often in collaboration with unlikely partners. Increasingly, I wonder where all this ends with respect to the consumerization of the enterprise. Does it look more like a train wreck as we all rush to the bottom, or does it look like the long-awaited promised land where more people are fully collaboration-enabled and, in some small way, humanity is restored at the workplace?
Let’s look at both the pros and cons of technology building blocks as they apply to ecosystems and partners, artificial intelligence (AI) and the overall quality of the systems deployed in an enterprise world that appears destined to become commoditized and rendered disposable.
Few will argue that we are years into a fundamental change in the way that we work. The spaces that we occupy look different, we join meetings from a wide variety of devices and our interactions are often connected by cloud-based services that have finally been made easy to use.
The pendulum has swung hard toward end customers piecing together their own solutions. Picking a cloud platform is easy because, these days, they’re all pretty good. Grab some cameras, microphones and speakers; add in a computer, plus the operating system (OS) of your choice; and round things out with cables and extenders, monitors, touchpanels, tongue tables, four chairs and some management software. Plug it all together and a hundred huddle rooms are deployed, like magic, with another thousand people connecting via their personal devices.
All this makes for a great story—except for the installation and maintenance friction. You can feel a shift toward simple, yet powerful, edge appliances that are fully functional, native-ecosystem devices, but that can also operate within any ecosystem, just like an app on your smartphone. These appliances will be easy, secure, purpose-built, native, upgradeable, expandable, maintainable and more. The only downside is the classic argument regarding best of breed versus vertically integrated. If you have non-standard use cases (high resolution, high frame rate, custom rooms, unique collaboration needs, etc.), then you have to be careful to match the right service with the right device. Choose wisely when combining service provider and device maker.
AI & Machine Learning
AI has become a buzzword, but, unfortunately, it’s frequently misused. When people casually throw it out, you should ask them what, exactly, they mean. It’s important to educate your team on the basics. Remember that vocabulary matters, and “AI” is simply too general as compared to specific machine-learning (ML) techniques that include neural networks and deep learning.
If there’s one thing I am certain of, it’s this: Already, the application of deep-learning neural networks in the enterprise has become, and will continue to be, the biggest differentiator that we have in our toolbox. It is real. New processors are being built to run these new models, the landscape is changing rapidly and we are limited only by our imagination on use cases.
We must develop a high-level understanding of concepts like AI, ML, computer vision, deep learning, convolutional neural networks, recurrent neural networks, generative adversarial networks, supervised learning and reinforced learning. Aurélien Géron’s book, Hands-On Machine Learning with Scikit-Learn and TensorFlow, is a great resource for a deep dive. Software Engineering Radio has plenty of podcast episodes, such as Jeremy Howard’s episode on deep learning and fast.ai.
Now’s a great time to learn a new skill. You’ll see an increasing number of augmented-analytics solutions that provide customer insights to which we’ve never before had access. Choose wisely when selecting vendors, focusing on those that utilize really useful AI technology.
Part Art, Part Science
Let’s go full circle by returning to product quality. Developing products is part art and part science. Often, we strive to balance three things—time, features and quality—but we ultimately get to choose only two. In all scenarios, I pick quality. Sadly, however, we’re all familiar with both consumer and enterprise equipment that finds its way into the storage closet, having been abandoned for its poor quality. Enterprise development cycles are getting shorter. The components that we use are increasingly coming from the consumer supply chain. The mantra is “Better, Faster, Cheaper.”
And yet, the lifetime of equipment deployed in the enterprise is still measured in years.
How can we fit in while also standing out? By choosing quality, every time. In an era of unprecedented choice for our customers and clients, it’s incumbent on us to help them choose wisely.