Personal tech gets down to businessDecember 28, 2011: 5:00 AM ET
After seeing executives jury-rig consumer gadgets and software for work, companies like Google and Apple are suiting up for success in the office.
By Richard Nieva, contributor
FORTUNE -- In recent years employees have been bringing their personal smartphones and tablets to work and tricking out their gadgets (sometimes without the tech department's okay) with productivity-enhancing apps and software. Now, instead of standing by as savvy individuals co-opt their technology for the workplace, a handful of consumer-oriented companies such as Google (GOOG) and Dropbox are courting corporate customers.
Dropbox, founded in 2007, initially targeted consumers with its web-based service, which allows users to store photos, home movies, and other large files and access them from any Internet-enabled device. (A customer receives the first two gigabytes of storage for free.) But fans also used Dropbox to save and share work files. Smelling opportunity, the company in October launched Dropbox for Teams, a paid-subscription service for the workplace. The IT-friendly version allows employers to manage user accounts and pay the tab on a single, companywide bill.
The so-called enterprise market has always been lucrative, even if its record for innovation has lagged behind that of its consumer counterparts. The "collaborative applications" market Dropbox addresses, now dominated by Microsoft (MSFT) and IBM (IBM), had annual sales of $7.9 billion last year, and is expected to reach $13.9 billion in 2015.
Sellers of consumer tech traditionally haven't paid much attention to companies, partly because they were growing just fine without wooing chief information officers. But as the lines between business and personal gadgets and software have blurred -- and as consumer-tech companies look for new sources of growth -- the corporate customer has become surprisingly sexy. Even Apple (AAPL), which rarely touts its enterprise capabilities, noted several business-to-business wins on its fourth-quarter earnings call, and earlier this year the company launched a separate corporate app store where employers can download enterprise apps in bulk. Google's enterprise division, which sells businesses a suite of e-mail, document-sharing, and other web-based tools (corporate clients include Jordache Enterprises and Virgin America), last month unveiled round-the-clock support for business customers -- the type of high-touch service corporate tech buyers expect.
But the reason so many employees love consumer gadgets and apps is that they're super-easy to use. Beefing up security or other features to comply with a corporation's needs can add complexity and water down the elegant experience employees were demanding in the first place. Still, ChenLi Wang, a business development executive at Dropbox, sees the company's new service as adding a different type of customer to the company's member base. "We thought we needed to provide a better user experience for companies' information-technology teams," he says. Indeed, IT personnel are the ones consumer-tech companies need to hook. Consumers have already bought in.
This article is from the December 26, 2011 issue of Fortune.