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Crossing Over

The next big things in business technology? Ask your kid.

Two years ago, CFO hired a new IT employee, an under-25 staffer who sat in an open cubicle. Due to the placement of his desk, the employee’s work habits were easily observed by colleagues. We watched with quiet amusement as this scion of Generation Y went about his work each day. The routine was almost always the same: iPod on, Instant Messaging up, thumb drive in.

We’re not laughing anymore. These days, writers at CFO carry MP3 players as entertainment and storage devices, sales staff rely on IM for communication, and editors use thumb drives to back up files. Truth is, over the past two decades or so, popular commercial technologies have dramatically altered how businesses operate. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find an outfit — large or small — that doesn’t depend on the same technologies found in a typical student’s backpack.

This pattern — called consumerization — is fairly new. Many of the great inventions of the last century were designed to meet business needs, although most eventually found their way into mainstream consumer applications. For example, the first integrated circuits (designed by Texas Instruments’s Jack Kilby and Fairchild Semiconductor’s Robert Noyce) went into mainframe computers sold only to large businesses and the military, but later proved essential to the development of the personal computer.

Now, technologies aimed at the masses often make their way back to corporations. “The flash and sizzle are accepted by consumers first,” says David Smith, an analyst at research firm Gartner. “Business follows.”

The impact has become so profound, in fact, that Gartner now predicts consumers will have a bigger influence on business technology than those charged with overseeing business technology — that is, corporate IT managers. Peter Sondergaard, the firm’s senior vice president of global research, believes consumerization will be the single most important trend in corporate IT over the next decade. In the next few years alone, things like image recognition, desktop search, mashups (recombinations of music, video, or Websites), and social networks will likely change how commerce itself is conducted.

The Searchers

Even technologies that would seem, at first glance, to be more suitable to businesses than to consumers are actually being exploited by teenagers, while companies watch and learn.

Take image-recognition software. This new Web tool lies at the heart of several intriguing Websites, including the popular Like.com, which enables online shoppers to search for items that resemble other ones. Thus, a 14-year-old can quickly locate a handbag just like the one Lindsay Lohan carried at the Golden Globes.

This may not seem like a major advance, but it is. Analysts say visual searches will create an entirely new way to sell. Executives like eBags Inc.’s Mark DeOrio already see the potential. “We just started using Like.com as another way to bring our products to the masses,” says DeOrio, CFO at the online seller of handbags, luggage, and backpacks. The E-tailer carries more than 25,000 products, an inventory that would take consumers several weeks to browse. “Rather than using key words to find what you like,” explains DeOrio, “Like.com lets you put a square around an item in a photo and find it, or a reasonable facsimile, instantaneously.”

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