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These are individuals, not just consumers, on the Web

One of the great misconceptions of the Web era is the way people talk about consumer use of the Web as if it's something that's distinct and hermetically separate from business use. The two Webs are not separate universes. The same people inhabit both.
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Written by Phil Wainewright, Contributor on

In several conversations during my brief visit to last week's Web 2.0 Summit in San Franciso I found myself correcting one of the great misconceptions of the Web era. I'm increasingly irked by the way people talk about consumer use of the Web as if it's something that's distinct and hermetically separate from business use. We're using the wrong word here, folks.

Earth from spaceIt's not consumer use that we're talking about, it's individual use. Sure, those individuals are consumers. But many of the most influential of them are also business people, and there's no artificial divide in their minds that says, "I'm doing this as a consumer, so it won't influence or cross over into what I do in the business environment." Quite the reverse, in today's 24x7 economy, when for many of us, the business environment has intruded on and invaded our personal time so comprehensively that our business brains are never quite switched off.

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting Google's EMEA headquarters in London and chatted to Maurizio Carli, managing director of EMEA Google Enterprise. Carli has crossed over to Google from enterprise software land — for a long while he worked for IBM Software under John Thompson's long reign there, then was at Business Objects until hired by Google. One of the things that attracted him to Google was the more rapid innovation that's happening in the consumer space, as he put it — which Google can then feed back into its enterprise offerings.

So-called consumer applications are advancing faster because individuals have so much more compute resource available for their personal use, he pointed out, with high-spec multimedia PCs at home, iPhones in their pockets and so on. It struck me that this is an illuminating contrast to the previous generation of computing innovation, when it was enterprise professionals who had the budget freedom to purchase PCs and software packages like Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Office, and who therefore led all the experimentation in the client-server software era.

Enterprise professionals in most corporations today are constrained by corporate purchasing policies and IT standardization (less so at Google, by the way, where employees can choose pretty much any personal compute device). But as individuals, those same people are not constrained by corporate risk assessment and compliance rules, while a decade or more of falling prices have brought today's game-changing technologies into a consumer price bracket. Those individuals may well be powerful business people in their working identity. But in their consumer guise they can do their own risk management and governance outside of the constraints of their corporate working environment, and thus have the freedom to be more experimental.

What happens next, of course, is that the results of their experimentation seeps straight back across the boundary into their working environment. Having used Google, Travelocity and TripAdvisor to successfully research and book their vacation, they'll use the same resources to organize their next business trip. If they've been using Facebook and Twitter to keep up with friends, they'll do the same to network with work colleagues. Once they've learnt the convenience of passing on how-to tips by recording and viewing short video clips, they'll want the same convenience in the workplace.

Pundits and marketeers have created a huge artificial demarcation in their minds between the consumer market and the business market, but out in the real world, consumers and business people are the self-same individuals. People who discover new innovations today in the consumer Web will instantly adapt them to their working lives in the business Web.

The two Webs are not separate universes. They overlap, and they're inhabited by the many of the same individuals — especially the most innovative of them.

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