CES and the shadow side of business IT spending

This is probably not the best time to try and buy a $10,000 server. Hiring expensive consultants to retool a service-oriented architecture likely won’t get a green light for the next few months. If you’re buying any application that isn’t offered as a service (and at a discount), it better be something that saves the company money.

At least, that’s my theory. No one really knows what the impact of the global economic recession will be on IT spending, though there are plenty of guesses. The most optimistic one is that things will stay stable, but hardly anyone is predicting growth. (Thomas L. Friedman would never have guessed that the title of his best-seller, The World Is Flat, would so accurately describe projected corporate investment in IT). All of which makes the Consumer Electronics Showcase in Las Vegas this week such an oddity: a place where it seems possible, against all odds, that people will put their money into something shiny, tiny and electronic.

There are a lot of potential blockbusters at CES – I have my eye on HP’s aluminum-clas Mini 2140, Verbatim’s ExpressCard SSD and LG’s 3G watch-phone, among others – but most IT managers probably aren’t watching CES closely enough to determine, based on what they know about their users, which will likely end up connected to their network. That’s a problem, because if the industry remains reactive in its response to the infiltration of consumer IT into the workplace, we’ll never be able to do a proper job of managing information, security or the technology-driven needs of the business.

I’ve made this kind of rant before, but those were in the days when other IT spending was still relatively strong. You could hope that within some enterprises there was the necessary infrastructure to manage the various personal devices that were being treated as though they were company issued. With so many capital budgets likely being rewritten as we speak, there is no far less certainly that IT managers will have the tools they need to track, monitor, or support how the products being featured at CES will work behind the firewall.

If companies decide to pass on, say, purchasing the latest systems management software from IBM, Microsoft and the like, there’s no guarantee that the newest smart phones, laptops or other tools will effectively work the way they should as business devices (not that there’s any guarantee when you do buy such software, but still). If a company has shelved its desktop virtualization plans, a lot of the new netbooks that enterprise employees purchase with an eye towards doing work in the off-hours won’t be used to their fullest potential.

Once the IDCs and Gartners of the world have a clearer picture of what enterprise IT spending will be this year, we also need to figure out the ratio of consumer IT spending, and see where the disconnects or gaps are. CES may not be a business-oriented show, but its target audience is largely composed of business people. What they decide to part with their precious dollars for may become particularly precious to the companies they work for.

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