The Art of IT: Packaging. The Future is Packaging

I'm not talking about the carton your latest IT gizmo came in, I'm talking about the features and functions of the gizmo itself.

May 4, 2006

3 Min Read
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In the movie The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman's character receives a bit of advice deemed critical to his future. "Plastics. There's a great future in plastics." Pithy, yes. But insightful? In the days of vinyl miniskirts, I'm not so sure.

So here's my somewhat pithy and, I hope, more insightful advice to you: Packaging--it's all about packaging. I'm not talking about the carton your latest IT gizmo came in, I'm talking about the features and functions of the gizmo itself. The greatest debate currently raging in technology is all about packaging, and which side you choose can mean a lot to the success of your organization--and, by extension, to you.

Consider the lowly PDA, for which the market has declined nine straight quarters, as reported by IDC in late April. Most recently, the decline was a precipitous 22.3 percent. Before you grab your Treo to fire off an e-mail disputing these figures, realize that IDC does not consider devices with cellular access in its numbers. For every PDA gone unsold, there are countless BlackBerrys and Treos that have taken up the slack.

Here's where packaging comes into play. I, like you, hate to carry crap in pockets, especially my back pockets. That leaves room for keys and money in one front pocket and some electronic device in the other--and whatever that device is, it had better have cellular capability. Give me something with a keyboard and e-mail functionality, and I'm a happy camper. Put a camera on it or a silly handwriting recognition app, and I couldn't care less.

Interestingly, IDC's PDA stats count devices that can do Wi-Fi. The message is clear. Great connectivity in the office is of little interest when you're competing for pocket space. Replace my desk phone with a Wi-Fi phone; that's fine. Expect me to carry that Wi-Fi phone and my cell phone everywhere? No deal.Are You Trying To Seduce Me?

But there's a broader, more complex picture here. Two years ago, I met with a small security-appliance vendor at Interop. The vendor had previously been marketing individual appliances--an IDS, firewall and so on--to address specific security challenges. Apparently, based on advice from pundits and who knows whom else, the vendor decided to integrate its offerings, much to the detriment of its business.

In a rare moment of vendor-to-press honesty, the CEO of the company looked me square in the eye and asked, "Why isn't everyone buying like you said they would?" This wasn't a topic I'd ever said much about, but I had at the time talked about appliance fatigue and the desire for infrastructure simplification. The reality is that while simplification can be a good thing, you have to consider the trade-offs. Integrated security appliances can't compete on performance with standalone products, nor do they offer best-of-breed credibility. Then consider that security is usually a reactionary purchase, most often made to address a particular urgent pain. At that point, no one thinks of buying an integrated solution.

Just as it was with young Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, it'll be up to you to make your own decision in the great packaging debate. Feature packages that are compelling today may be obsolete tomorrow. And as function and feature lists grow, you'll sacrifice performance, increase device complexity and often end up paying more. But the truth is, there's no obvious answer to the packaging question. More and more vendors are trying to differentiate their wares by making their products do more. Don't be seduced by the "more is better" mentality.

Art Wittmann, editor in chief of Network Computing, has a slightly used PDA he'd like to sell you. Write to him at [email protected].6044

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