The flip side of consumerization -- or why everything suddenly seems to be broken

Four years ago, most of us had one computer. With smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, and other devices, we're now dealing with a lot more information spread out across a lot more places. That means consumers are suddenly becoming information technology workers. Credit: Kalavinka via Flickr

Personal technology doesn't seem to work as well as it used to, and people are starting to get upset about it.

Last week, John Battelle ranted that Apple products are no longer simple to use, and gave numerous examples, from contacts to photos to the mysterious "Other" crud that's taking up a lot of storage space on his iPhone. 

Then today, Microsoft developer evangelist Scott Hanselman wrote that "everything's broken and nobody's upset," citing many of the same examples (including the iPhone "Other" stuff) as well as lots of new ones, like slowness in Gmail and bad web sites crashing IE9.

I've had many similar experiences -- duplicate contacts that never get resolved, weird disappearing emails and calendar entries, browser plug-in alerts that make no sense, auto-updates that slow performance to a crawl, and the madness of trying to organize and maintain the proper album cover art on nearly 4,000 songs in iTunes.

What's going on here?

Hanselman suggests that software developers are favoring speed over quality, or have forgotten how to do QA testing, or lack passion to create perfect (or even half decent) software. 

I think it's simpler than that.

Call it the flip side of consumerization. Just as consumer technologies are sneaking into the workplace, average consumers are being asked to deal with the kinds of technical complexity that used to be the domain of professional IT workers.

Think back before you had a smartphone. You probably had a personal computer at home that you used for a few simple tasks -- sending email, storing pictures and music, online shopping, maybe paying taxes or playing a few simple games. Sometimes you'd plug a Palm Pilot (remember?) or digital camera or iPod into the computer and transfer information back and forth. You probably had one or two Internet services that you used regularly, and you probably had to get information in and out of those services manually. You entered your email contacts by hand. You uploaded pictures one at a time. And so on.

That was probably only four years ago. At most.

Now, almost everybody's walking around with at least a second full-featured computer in their pocket, which we swap out for a new one every two or three years. A lot of us have a third computer -- a tablet -- that we use at home. Many of us now have a computer hooked up to or built into our TV. Plus, all those other computers that everybody in the household keeps bringing home.

These devices are all constantly gathering data -- pictures, usernames and passwords, information you enter into apps and online services, movie and book purchases, and so on. They're all connected to the Internet and to each other nearly all the time, and exchanging reams of data with a wide variety of services.

Suddenly, we're dealing with a lot of really complicated problems that will sound familiar to anybody who's worked in IT:

  • How do we make sure that when we update information in one place, it's updated in all the relevant places at once? (Directories, synchronization.)
  • With all this stuff spread all over the place, how do we find what we need when we need it? (Enterprise search, information management.)
  • How do we know that each new device, app, or service we add to our personal portfolio works properly with all the other devices, apps, and services we know and trust? (Backwards compatibility, system integration.)
  • How do we make sure that the information we hold most valuable is shared only with the apps and people we trust? (Authentication, authorization, data security.)
  • What happens if we lose our smartphone with all our contacts on it? (Backup.)
  • When something breaks or we can't get a network connection, who do we yell at and what can we get from them in compensation? (Support contracts, SLAs, vendor choices.)

I'm sure you can think of more.

Worse yet, consumer tech companies have been engaged in a relentless 20-year dumbing-down process, hiding complexity in the name of helping normal people consume more technology. It worked -- everybody's a geek now. But when things go wrong, they're usually a lot harder to debug.

For instance, as a longtime Windows user, I'm pretty sure that when my iPhone hangs it's because there's some background process going wrong and sucking up all my memory. But the iPhone doesn't have a Task Manager, so my only option is to shut down the phone, which kills all the processes, and start it up again. Usually it works. If it doesn't, I delete a bunch of not-really-necessary photos. Then apps. If I'm still having problems, I go into iTunes and delete a bunch of songs, then re-sync it. (I haven't had to go beyond that yet -- fingers crossed.)

I've never worked in IT. Neither have most of the hundreds of millions of people who bought their first smartphone in the last couple years. 

But in the new world of consumerization, we're all our own personal IT managers. 

Vendors can help us by designing products that work better together and by offering better support and documentation when things go wrong. But as long as we keep buying and using their products as designed, why should they?

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