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Who Needs Tech Support? Workers Take Control

Savvy office workers frustrated that their on-the-job computer tools don't function as smoothly as, say, an Apple iPod are taking matters into their own hands.

office worker at a desk
AP
office worker at a desk

No longer are they relying on company technicians, or information technology (IT) administrators, to choose the software needed to get the job done. They know how to pluck tools right off the Web.

Industry observers use the term "consumerization" to describe the phenomenon whereby office workers are less likely to wait for the IT folks to equip them.

Analyst Rebecca Wettemann of software research firm Nucleus Research says her company's surveys of corporate technology users frequently turn up the question: "Why can't I do what I want without getting an OK from IT?"

All of this poses a challenge to Microsoft's business software franchise, and may be one of the under-appreciated reasons it's trying to acquire Yahoo

with its 500-million-strong base of Web consumers.

"Individual people, not IT organizations, are driving the next wave of (technology) adoption," Forrester Research said in a recent report.

Forrester refers to the movement toward user control and individual empowerment as "Technology Populism," others refer to it as "Office 2.0." Less sympathetically, consulting firm Yankee Group, in a 2007 report entitled "Zen and the Art of Rogue Employee Management," sees it as a threat for IT managers.

Microsoft Vulnerability, A Yahoo Strength

Once an isolated minority, these unhappy consumers have entered the mainstream of work life with a growing technical self-confidence. The braver souls shun corporate "help desks" as much as possible.

Because Web-based services often are free or charge little, budget restrictions, typically used by corporate managers to rein in organizational projects, rarely apply.

"IT managers have served as corporate gatekeepers. With software on demand, average people are able to explore and access and do much more than they have in the past," Wettemann says. "That power is going away," she said of central control.

This is risky for the software maker. The ease with which modern Web sites let individuals add or subtract features creates headaches for Microsoft, a company that grew rich selling software to organizations and technical decision makers. The next version of Microsoft Office software only goes into testing in 2009.

"Established software companies like Microsoft have less ability to promise a product in the future and have customers wait for it," Wettemann says. "When something I can find on the Web does 70 percent of what I want, today, why should I wait?"

Microsoft and rival Google have come to represent polar opposites in this debate over how to handle employees who want more say over their office technology.

Google has targeted individual business users by appealing directly to their frustrated consumer impulses.

But Yahoo's similarities to Google in terms of Web delivery, consumer focus and use of open standards technology could speed Microsoft's own belated moves in this direction if it can succeed in acquiring Yahoo and keep its loyal audience.

Beyond Search and Advertising

Microsoft has mainly justified its unsolicited offer for Yahoo as the fastest way to make it a formidable rival to Google in Web search and advertising. The software giant downplays any imminent threat by Web services to its business.

Ray Ozzie, who has taken over as chief software architect from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, told a conference of Internet developers in Las Vegas this week that the Web is at the center of everything Microsoft is doing.

"All applications, ours and yours, will incorporate the group-forming aspects of the Web," Ozzie said. "Linking, sharing, ranking, tagging on the Web will become as familiar to us as file, edit and view on the PC," he said.

The merger with Yahoo would provide Microsoft "creative people and interesting online properties," he said. The Google approach is exemplified by Dave Girouard, the general manager of Google's Enterprise division, which sells Web services to businesses, schools and government agencies.

In a recent interview about a new Web site publishing tool for teams of business users, Girouard said Google's strategy was to get IT technicians out of the way whenever feasible.

"The idea of this product is that IT (technicians) don't have to do anything except enable the users to serve themselves," Girouard said.

The focus on individual users rather than on technical administrators is an idea handed down from its two 34-year-old co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the executive said.

"Sergey and Larry... don't see the hard boundary between the consumer and business that most of us would see," Girouard says. "They just think the user is the user is the user and they want to make things better for users."

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