person wearing a VR headset pointing their finger at the camera
PHOTO: Hammer & Tusk

The newest generation entering the workforce will never have had an AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) account, but at one time the consumer-facing chat program was "how all Wall Street communicated." Why? AIM solved a business need for instant digital communication, and there was no competitive enterprise option.

AIM (and its technicolor profile and away messages) met a rapid demise, but it also provided inspiration for modern business communication platforms like Slack and Skype, and is a prime example of the role consumer-facing tech plays in modernizing business. If the perfect solution doesn’t exist for business, users will turn to consumer options until someone with a niche idea — and better unit-economics — comes along.

The spark of B2B tech inspiration is now a roaring flame, and new offerings evolve at an escalated pace as prototyping and production cycles improve. What implications will the flashy emerging consumer technologies of today have for the B2B users of tomorrow? Let’s look to the past for some clues.

The Mighty Swing of Technology

Let’s start by thinking of technology as a pendulum that swings between consumer applications and more niche business use cases. It’s a pattern that began when cavemen first invented tools by smashing stuff with rocks (I assume; unfortunately my time machine is on the fritz). In more recent history, Ford’s consumer-facing Model T, born in 1908, was revamped in 1917 as the Model TT, which featured a wider chassis and truck bed for farmers.

Many tech wonks point to the 2007 launch of the iPhone as dawn of the current consumer tech era. Despite its relatively high initial price point ($499 to $599) and limited network options, the iPhone and its tablet spinoff iPad quickly became must-have gadgets. But these sleek mobile devices can’t stand up to the rough-and-tumble needs of dusty factories and high-use retail stores. It was time for the pendulum to swing in the other direction.

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Handhelds Go Heavy-Duty

Once the required scale and variety of consumer communication options arrived on the market, B2B manufacturers like Zebra and Motorola jumped on the trend and began tinkering with purpose-built options for businesses at a scalable price point. Because more users handle these tablets, phones, earpieces and other personal tech in a repetitive environment, they need to be more durable, more user-friendly, offer more features and be more replaceable than consumer choices.

And brands have answered that call. Today, manufacturers who may have hesitated to put delicate Bluetooth headsets into widespread use on their factory floors are empowered by reasonable price points. At $15 a pop, budgets won’t be broken if a headset is lost or broken a few times a year. Lower-cost handheld devices enable retailers to heed consumers’ call for checkout-less in-store payments; 67% of shoppers say they use or would use this option if available.

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A Virtually Headache-Free Workforce?

Right now, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and voice technologies are the most popular kids in school — everyone wants to claim an association. The buzz isn’t without merit for B2B applications, especially in high-cost operations where expensive problems could be solved with a low-tech investment.

These tools go beyond human expertise and allow us to interact with information in entirely new ways. For example, using VR, a mobile field tech could visualize repairs on a pipeline in the middle of the desert or on a deep ocean rig, and a repair tech could get inside an older HVAC unit or under the hood of a car.

The tech pendulum hasn’t swung quite this far for AR, VR and voice, and B2B innovation may require the scale of the consumer world to allow for purpose-built adaptation. Today’s VR devices are fragile, heavy and downright goofy-looking. But as they gain popularity in the gaming community, companies like Microsoft will shift their gaze to business use cases, and the pendulum will swing.

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Balancing the Pendulum

The pendulum metaphor might make this evolution sound like a completely smooth one. It’s true that contract manufacturers and the rise of 3-D printing have shortened the pendulum and accelerated timelines. But it would be foolhardy to assume the road from consumer to B2B application is a guaranteed progression. To succeed, manufacturers must find a justifiable price point for the business problem being solved.

I’ve been forcing myself to use voice commands more frequently as its growing role becomes more apparent. (My household has decided that Alexa knows more than Google or Siri.) Voice is poised to be a B2B game-changer. Humans can communicate far more quickly via speech than typing, and someday soon field techs will talk to their vans “Knight Rider”-style, to check inventory and map out their next job site.

We’re not at this point yet, but the company that wins the day will be the one whose van communicates most effectively, with the most users, at the most reasonable price point. I say, let the competition begin. After all, if parrots can use voice commands to make shopping lists and turn off the lights, there’s no reason B2B companies should be left behind.