I just attended EMC's biggest launch in its history and a good chunk was focused on the midmarket with its new product, the VNXe. What was particularly interesting was its position that a 5th grader could administer it. The company then brought out a 5th grader to demonstrate the product. It struck me that, finally, here is a vendor that begins to understand that the vast majority of midmarket companies don't want to have products that require highly-trained administrators and they can't afford to have their support folks go through massive retraining every time a product is improved. I also found it interesting that the 5th grader used an iPad to administer the system, which demonstrated the future for most administrative products.
Let's explore this.
iPad vs. Windows XP
During the demonstration, the EMC executive doing the initial showcase had a Dell laptop running Windows XP, mirroring the vast majority of administrators in most companies. However, particularly in small firms, administrators are more mobile because they typically wear more than one hat and they often (at least not while wearing their administrator hat) don't do a lot of productivity work. They are often tasked with physically checking the hardware, which may include many non-IT items.
Because of this, their working equipment needs to be closer to an iPad than a notebook computer because they already carry a number of tools and they need the instant-on feature and the all-day battery life that comes with tablets like the iPad.
So this shows a likely business entry point for the iPad and one that could see the product showcased widely in a company. However, given the current level of security on the product, it also showcases a huge risk because should this tablet be misplaced and the administrative passwords and identifications cached, it could allow someone administrative access to critical systems and that would be a very bad thing.
Implementing policies that prevent ID and password caching, and auditing against those policies if iPads are used would be a wise step to take regardless of company size.
Putting a 5th Grader to the Task
We often see demonstrations where the lead vendor argues that it has improved the user interface and made things simpler. But we generally find that after installing the product, what looks simple in a staged performance isn't simple in practice. The problem is that folks developing a product create the new interface over time and generally find it simple because they wrote it or have been working with it for some time before the release. When EMC put up a 5th grader to showcase its product's ease of use, it hit a chord with me because I think that part of the test for a new product, particularly for the midmarket, should be whether it is easy enough that a 5th grader could do it.
This isn't to say that administrators in the midmarket are stupid. It is to say that they often don't have the luxury of the time needed to learn a new interface regardless of whether an existing product is refreshed or competitively displaced. They generally know what kind of policies they should be implementing, but having to spend time figuring out how to implement them on something new is simply time wasted that could be better spent on the other duties they normally carry.
If a 5th grader with an iPad can figure out how to do something, then it has met the usability bar and eliminated a major impediment to technology adoption.
Wrapping Up: iPads and 5th Graders
I do think the future of administrative hardware across all company sizes is a relatively light terminal-like device. The devices will be coming in whether we are prepared or not and it's best to be prepared. I also think that vendors that are working aggressively to make products easy enough for a 5th grader to use should be favored over those that require heavy retraining with each product release. Time is money in the midmarket and enterprise, and training on interfaces is a waste of both. EMC set a bar today and my hope is that other vendors will stretch to at least meet it.