Field NotesThe Fungible Future

Romi Mahajan

The philosopher and economist Karl Marx wrote in one of his tracts that "all that is solid melts into air," signifying the shifting relationships among societal categories brought upon by the rise of industrialization and capitalism in 19th century Europe. This powerful notion, that divisions and categories never fully ossify, plays itself out in many forms and contexts, not least in the world of technology—a world in which the only constant is change.

In this fast-moving industry, there is no better example of the speed of change (and the challenge we face because of it) than in the rise of consumer-driven technology. In fact, IT has become "consumerized," and the leading indicators of change fall squarely in the world of the personal, with huge effects on both business and life. This phenomenon takes a number forms:

  1. The Web 2.0 world is about the read/write Internet; writing to the Internet is almost all about the writer's role as consumer.
  2. Consumer applications and technologies are creating a "halo" effect for business.
  3. The core plumbing of the Internet is being planned for and tested because of the consumerization of IT.
  4. IT formations like help desks must plan for, deal with, and learn from the blurring lines of distinction between home-use and business-use technologies.
  5. People make decisions, and these people are consumers just as they are professionals.
  6. A person's "favorite" technology is almost always a consumer product, not a business product.

The implications are profound and categories are interchangeable, as you can see in just a handful of examples. A friend of mine in a technology-driven company told me that fully 8 percent of all help desk calls in his company are because of iTunes updates. Cisco's white paper "The Exabyte Era" begins with two points—that the Internet is not collapsing under the weight of streaming video and that YouTube is just the beginning. Apple Corporation had almost 10 percent of the retail laptop market during March 2007, according to an NDP Group report—the halo effect of the iPod at work. Microsoft is investing heavily in areas like gaming, music, digital photography, and video hosting. And finally, companies today hold meetings in Second Life.

Moreover, technology brands have been elevated and genericized to the rarefied air of permanence. People "Google" things, they all talk about iPods, they "myspace" themselves, and they play "Xbox®." An emotional connection has been built between people and their technologies, and the effect of this connection works transitively from office, to home, back to office and then onto their regard for the companies that build these devices, applications, Web sites, and communities. As we build perceptions—good, bad, or neutral—these very perceptions live with us in both our personal and professional incarnations.

What is relevant to an individual, therefore, is a complex matter. And a fundamental culture shift is necessary if companies are to meet the simultaneous challenge of scaling their messages, showing intimacy, and caring for their customers. In an earlier era, before deep specialization in roles, generic messages were the substance of marketing. Conversely, in recent years, "focused" messaging has been the rage, allowing laser-like precision against such categories as job title, audience segment, company size, and specific technologies. What has been lost, however, is the fact that indeed all that is solid melts into air and appealing to people in their personal/consumer incarnations is the way—the only way—to build a connection and to be ahead of the curve.

To be fungible means to be interchangeable and to lack hard distinctions among categories. In other words, we can no longer erect walls between our notions of consumer and business technologies. The consumerization of IT is here, and the future is indeed fungible.

Romi Mahajan is Director of Marketing for the Technical Audience and Platform Marketing team at Microsoft. Romi has been published extensively in many fields including politics, the environment, technology, and sociology.

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