iPods at the Office

Cell phones, email, and instant messaging have all found a home as productive members of the business world. Will the iPod become the next apple of...
Russ BanhamMarch 2, 2005

The ubiquity of the iPod has made its maker, Apple Computer Inc., the world’s top brand. The company received a Valentine last month from marketing research firm Interbrand, which named the Silicon Valley pioneer the most recognizable brand on the planet. Apple, which topped the survey two years ago, was supplanted last year by Google. Not so in 2005: Apple’s renown was abetted by the enormous sales of its iPod music player, now packing the pockets of more than 10 million people worldwide.

The success of the iPod, which first went on sale in 2001, has buffed up Apple’s stock price of late and guided a recent stock split, and the company now maintains that it owns a 65 percent share of the hard-drive-based portable-music market. Indeed, more than half those 10 million iPods were sold just last year — including more than a dozen bought by some enterprising radiologists at the University of California, Los Angeles.

They’re download-loving doctors in more ways than one. The UCLA radiologists can quickly store x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs), computed tomography (CT) scans, and the like, carry them wherever they’re needed, and view a patient’s medical images as easily as you might call up the latest hit single.

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“One day, I realized I have an iPod that has 40 gigabytes of storage on it,” wrote Osman Ratib, professor and vice chairman of radiologic services at UCLA, in a bulletin from the Radiologic Society of North America. “It’s twice as a big as my disk on my laptop, and I’m only using 10 percent of it for my music.” When Ratib considered the large volumes of visual data that his doctors must deal with, he wondered, “Why not use it as a hard disk for storing medical images?” Added Ratib, “Technology coming from the consumer market is changing the way we do things in the radiology department.”

Ratib and his iPod-toting team are not alone in gleaning enterprise value from consumer-directed technology. “There are a number of consumer devices with specific primary functions, like audio players, that are not limited to just those primary functions,” explains Susan Kevorkian, senior analyst with technology research firm IDC’s consumer markets group in San Mateo, California. “Once a device is in the hands of consumers, people find a variety of ways to use it; so much the better for them and the seller.”

Take the case of instant messaging. “This is a technology that essentially began life as a ‘buddy list’ over AOL, then people started using it outside of AOL, and then they started using it at work,” says Ted Schadler, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. “Next thing you know, instant messaging was common in the enterprise world.” Other Internet-based technologies also have made the trek from home to enterprise usage. “Peer-to-peer technology started as a way for consumers to swap mostly pirated content online,” says Kevorkian. “Now, we see companies like Kontiki Networks using essentially the same technology to deliver content to end users legitimately.”

Technology hardware like desktop computers and personal digital assistants also owe consumers for their acceptance in the corporate world. Jon Erensen, an analyst at technology research firm Gartner, says the PDA got its start in the consumer marketplace before it became de rigeuer in the enterprise. “People started buying them retail and then bringing them into work for business purposes,” Erensen says. “Now PDAs are everywhere in the office.” Same with the personal computer: “PCs first caught hold at home and then, gradually, were picked up by companies, which were mostly mainframe- and minicomputer-oriented at the time,” Schadler explains.

There are some twists on this theme, as well. Schadler notes that some devices start with the enterprise in mind, put down roots with consumers, then branch out within corporations. Cell phones, he observes, “began life in professional trades like real estate,” but in the early days, many companies thought they were too expensive a proposition. Once consumers adopted them en masse, however, and companies realized how productive their employees could be, “they worked to create better payment plans and pricing models. The value of the technology wasn’t fully realized by the enterprise until it got into the hands of consumers first.”

Consumer technology at the office also has its risks. “Look what happened with instant messaging,” says Schadler. “Wall Street investment advisers had to ban it out of concerns over snooping. Now, the street has its own version of IM on their corporate systems, with firewalls and other intrusion prevention systems.”

iPods raise similar concerns, of course, but that’s not stopping organizations from putting them to even more uses. “Duke University gave 1,600 iPods for free to its freshman class this year, the idea being that students could download lectures to listen to in the privacy of their dorms,” Erensen explains. Indeed, “podcasting” — the creation of spoken-word audio that can be downloaded to an iPod, then listened to at leisure — may soon bring news, instruction, and continuing education to an office near you.

(Editor’s note: For an upcoming article, we’d like to hear about your favorite podcasts, either for personal enjoyment or professional enlightenment. Send your suggestions to [email protected].)