Invite Those Unsanctioned Applications In!

It's a classic case of mine vs. yours: Users are downloading a crop of new and often unsanctioned programs onto their PCs, bypassing IT's careful management discipline. Although user-downloaded apps are nothing new, they're now streaming onto business PCs at a fever pitch -- bolstered by the automatic updating common to many apps and by the trend of apps self-installing when needed by a browser. These have joined the familiar parade of personal apps users just can't seem to live without at work, such as instant messaging and even iTunes.

IT has struggled to deal with user-installed apps for years, but the new, constant flood of these programs may simply be too much to handle. Perhaps IT has to admit defeat and abandon efforts to control what users install on their PCs -- accepting the IT heresy that users' PCs are in fact their PCs, not IT's machines.

IT's Overwhelming User-Download Challenge

Consider what IT is up against. When Mozilla released Firefox 3.0 earlier this summer, it simultaneously set out to land in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most software downloads in a single day. And it accomplished that record download goal.

It's not just Firefox, either. In a survey of 2,000 U.S. online adults that use a PC at work, Forrester Research found that 29 percent of them download software onto work machines that is not given to them by the IT department. The top application downloads: instant messaging, Web browsers, desktop search, and productivity/time management applications.

Apple iTunes, various media players such as RealPlayer and Adobe Flash, and virtual reality environment Second Life are rampant on corporate PCs. Take Flash, a player that Web pages download for users automatically when Flash content is on a page. Thanks to that automatic downloading, Adobe has found that new versions get widely adopted, even behind corporate firewalls, in a matter of months.

More and more companies are approving Firefox and instant messaging, says Fred Broussard, an IDC research director for enterprise systems infrastructure software. But he notes that few are standardizing on other lifestyle apps, iTunes specifically. Still, "there's always going to be somebody who finds a business use for these apps."

Research firm Gartner is seeing the same trend, particularly for Web applications. "Internet client software, such as iTunes, Twhirl, Second Life, and others seem to be adopted by individuals rather than organizations," says Ray Valdes, a research director.

Learning to Accept User Downloads

If users are driving the adoption of Internet applications -- making tools such as Adobe Reader, Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, iTunes, Flash, instant messaging, and so on de facto corporate standards -- what does that mean for IT?

"Certain organizations look the other way ... [with] a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," Gartner's Valdes says. "A few -- a very few -- embrace this new world."

The city of Brampton, Ontario, is one of those very few. Chris Moore, an IT consultant who was CIO of Brampton until just last month, says IT must provide users the tools they need. "Firefox, iTunes, and others are in use where there is a clear business need. Unless you are in a paramilitary environment where people follow the orders of the authorities, it's best to make allowances in the interest of productivity," he recommends. "If you don't, then you are more of a cop and less of an enabler."

Being an enabler does not mean that IT just sits idly by, however. "You don't necessarily want to open the kimono and say, 'Everybody should be downloading consumer tools,' but you do have to look at why it's happening," says Matt Brown, a principal analyst at Forrester.

In Brampton's case, if unsanctioned applications are not causing problems operationally, IT leaves them alone. "But if we encountered one that caused problems, then we would run it through the integration lab to try and resolve it," Moore says. "If it is unresolvable, then we look for a friendly functional equivalent."

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