From email to instant messaging and social networking, the consumer market has been the proving ground for the technologies that run the enterprise.
Now some experts believe that popular tech appliances such as the Apple (AAPL) iPad -- which combine proprietary software and hardware in a single, special-purpose device -- may tell us where enterprise computing is headed next.
That would be a huge shift for the information technology market, which has been based on open software standards that can be applied to commodity pieces of hardware.
Oracle the Latest Example
The latest example of that shift may be Oracle (ORCL), which in January completed its acquisition of Sun Microsystems, a company known for its servers as well as its Java programming platform. Oracle may soon develop single-purpose machines such as database appliances, or accounting or supply-chain management machines.
"That may well be the future of the corporate computing, in which companies like Oracle differentiate hardware, which is generally a lower margin product, with embedded software, much as Apple differentiates the iPhone," says Al Hilwa, an analyst with tech researcher IDC.
IBM (IBM) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) already have software and hardware businesses capable of producing such appliances on their own. And Apple, should it decide to move deeper into the enterprise market, has an integrated software and hardware platform as well.
There are plenty of big enterprise tech companies -- such as Intel (INTC) on the hardware side and Microsoft (MSFT), Google (GOOG) and SAP (SAP) on the software side -- that have yet to show much interest in integration. Although, even these relatively pure plays have demonstrated some willingness to experiment -- Google with the Android phone, and Microsoft with its Signature PCs, stripped of annoying preloaded software.
Short Trip to the Enterprise Appliance Market
Amazon (AMZN), which also has shown an interest in building its enterprise business, has moved into the consumer appliance market with its Kindle electronic reader. It would be a short trip into the enterprise appliance market.
There are early signs that the appliance market is forming. Oracle and HP worked together to develop the Exadata database and storage appliances, which were launched in 2008. "We really need much more performance out of our databases than we currently get," Oracle CEO Larry Ellison said at the time. "Large databases are tripling in size every two to three years. That creates a fundamental problem. They can't move that data off the disks fast enough."
The appliances put the memory and the storage together, reducing the amount of data flowing over the connections between them. Smaller companies such as Netezza offer rival products. When Exadata was launched, Netezza Chief Operating Officer Jim Baum -- who's now CEO -- derided the partnership approach of Oracle and HP, saying the key is integration, not bolting different products together "with glue and spit."
Oracle's acquisition of Sun, which developed the Java programming platform that Oracle products are based on, shows that Ellison may have decided that Baum had a good point.
Oracle, Java and the Future of Corporate Computing