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Should enterprise IT piggyback on consumer Web?

Enterprise software is notoriously expensive and complex, while the consumer Web is the exact opposite. Should software vendors start borrowing Web infrastructure?

For all the billions enterprises spend on IT each year, they arguably get far inferior software than Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other consumer Web companies make available for free. In part, the consumer Web can deliver exceptional value for so little because it piggybacks on the expensive infrastructure built by others.

Is it time for enterprise software to "pull a Google" and build solutions on the consumer Web?

Your new Enterprise Content Management/Collaboration system?

It may sound preposterous, but consider just how good the software you use at work is compared to the software you use at home. It's not even close. The consumer Web wins every single time.

For those who think there must be some trade-off in software quality when brown-bagging with the consumer Web instead of using white-glove dining with expensive SAP or Oracle, they're right. There is.

But the trade-off favors consumer-facing applications, as Alfresco CTO and co-founder (and my colleague) John Newton highlights:

The whole idea of enterprise software in the 21st century seems anachronistic. The term enterprise really only took hold in the 90s in order to describe systems that were able to scale beyond the department. It meant big, powerful, flexible, but it also meant big, clunky, and expensive.

As Web 2.0 sites with their cheap (read free), simple, but scalable platforms scaled to millions of users in a matter of months, the whole idea of only being able to support thousands of users and take years to implement became ludicrous. Being enterprise--meaning you can support your heavyweight infrastructure of other enterprise parts--also seems less interesting when you consider that the largest databases on the planet run on MySQL using a concept called "Sharding."

Sure, there are problems with the consumer Web. ZDNet, for example, points out that Twitter's security model isn't fully formed yet, and could introduce security breaches into enterprise software that leverages it.

But let's not kid ourselves that enterprises aren't already at risk--and, perhaps, equally at risk--from the "secure, enterprise-grade" software they shell out thousands or millions of dollars for every year.

And let's also not pretend that enterprise workers are going to ignore the sleek, highly usable consumer Web in favor of the clunky systems IT foists upon them. They're not.

Nor should they. I already find myself communicating with colleagues, customers, and partners over Facebook and Twitter, and I imagine you are, too. It's simply more efficient that way.

Rather than fight this, IBM et al. should build applications on top of the consumer Web. Or maybe a security overlay is all that's needed. Something that secures the communication endpoints while leaving employees free to interact with their peers at other companies using the consumer Web.

Novell is doing this with its Pulse service for Google Wave, a testament to just how innovative software can be when it isn't locked behind a firewall by IT. Others should follow suit, and not create clones of the consumer Web as Tibco has with its Twitter clone, Tibbr.

Web 2.0 Journal notes six megatrends affecting enterprise IT, including now-familiar themes like open-source development and cloud computing. The consumer Web should be there, too. It may well be the future of enterprise software. And perhaps it should be.