Business Technology Starts to Get Personal

Last week, the heads of two of America’s biggest companies said almost the same thing about what personalized technology would mean to the future of business.

First, Timothy D. Cook, the chief executive of Apple, said his consumer technology company was starting to address the business world, which people in tech call “the enterprise.”

“We want to make tools to help people change the world, and that means being in the enterprise,” Mr. Cook said at a conference on Tuesday for Box, a company that makes online storage and collaboration tools. It is, he said, “a huge opportunity for us.”

Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, endorsed that view later in the day. “Industrial companies have yet to feel the benefit of the Internet the way consumers have,” he said in an interview. “We’re just getting started.”

Each man takes his stand relative to where he sits. Mr. Cook talked about the prospects for the kind of mobile Internet services delivered on iPhones and iPads and developed on Macs. Mr. Immelt is building a system of sensors and so-called predictive data analysis that he hopes will deliver to G.E. $10 billion in revenue by 2020. That same year, G.E. is forecasting, there will be one billion connected electric meters, 100 million connected light bulbs and 152 million connected cars globally.

But what does it mean for business technology to be like consumer tech? Looking at consumer tech today, the answer is personalization.

Google looks at your searches, emails and other online behavior and sends you a likely ad. Facebook reads your social behavior to the same end. Online media uses tracking cookies. The iPhone logs your location and sends it to various places.

It doesn’t end there. Tesla cars and Nest thermostats are designed to watch what you do with them and adjust themselves to better serve you.

Remarkably, mass-produced goods increasingly personalize into something unique because of a lot of snooping on you. Few consumers turn personalizing features off, adjust use or boycott the products. In a conflict of personalization and privacy, personalization has triumphed.

Mr. Immelt foresaw much the same kind of thing happening with machines. “We can now track every jet engine separately throughout its life,” he said, giving each one the machine equivalent of a Facebook page, which states where it is and how it is “feeling,” making maintenance more efficient.

Changing the behavior of devices will enable companies, he said, “to make sure you don’t allow any space between the customer and you.”

Mr. Cook was less clear, but Apple’s joint agreements with Cisco Systems and IBM aimed at business are almost certain to involve a lot of personal identification and location awareness, if only in the name of corporate security. There are already office apps that interact with people depending on location and job status. Equipment and software like whiteboards or conference-call phones record who is in a meeting or tag what was said.

Many people expect to see machines develop relationships with their operators. “A camera on every machine will identify who you are,” said William Ruh, the head of G.E.’s digital business. “It will configure itself optimally for the person using it, or be looking at you and others and figuring out the best practices for its own operation.”

Taking orders from a lathe, he noted, “could feel threatening, but it’s the opposite —  it’s effective on-the-job training.”

That sounds like a high-tech version of Taylorism, the so-called “scientific management” pioneered by Fredrick Winslow Taylor a hundred years ago. Taylor timed workers doing things like shoveling and lifting, broke their work into discrete steps and figured out the optimal speeds that work could be done.

Optimal behavior became a quota, akin to the way packers in warehouses are timed today. A small problem: Taylor made up or fudged a lot of his “scientific data,” but the idea stuck.

We may see a big data version of the idea. “It will be based on billions of objective data points, not crude rules of thumb,” said Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It will be personalized to individuals under different conditions and times of day, and it will be more flexible.”

Mr. Brynjolfsson is one of the authors of “The Second Machine Age,” a book on an industrial world enchanted by computing. He foresees other peculiarities.

“With enough data, you can infer drug use or political persuasions,” he said. “These are things that are racing ahead, and we haven’t thought them through.”

There will be benefits like buying a used car and knowing how it was driven and what is likely to go wrong with it. There may also be challenging effects from companies that collect and manipulate their data the best.

“There is a huge opportunity for efficiency gains, but there will be side effects from taking out all the opacity around how things last and behave,” Mr. Brynjolfsson said. “A product that is 30 percent, or even three-tenths of a percent, better will get ordered more.”

A good place, in other words, to be Apple or General Electric. The rest of us may have to be on our toes. It is likely that a lot of others will be. If it turns out like the consumer Internet, we’ll be delighted with the rewards of being spied on, even if we don’t know what they are yet.

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