Sep 072010

Apple continues to make waves with the iPad and the iPhone. The iPad is probably already a US $2 billion line of business in a scant 80 days. Name another product that generated so much revenue so fast. I am finding how Apple pulled off that feat to be a more significant lesson in the design and engineering of a businesses than the glitz and splash of the iPad usability. Apple is adept at building business models perhaps more so than devices, at least for now.

But I think we haven’t seen anything yet. All the competitors — such as Dell, HP, phone manufacturers, and others — that were caught with their pants down when the Apple tsunami pulled back the water underneath them are furiously designing, building, and delivering devices of all sorts, and many of them will be quite good. They are quite aware of Apple’s business model execution acumen.

It is shaping up to be a two-horse race between Apple and Google for the billions of mobile OS licenses. From a user standpoint, it might not matter who wins, so long as HTML5 continues to be pushed and promoted, or at least well supported, by Apple, Google, Microsoft, and others. We are entering a new age of application development that finally looks like it can meet the high-water mark set 15 years ago with the great client-server development tools today’s programmers’ daddies used.

We may very well be on the cusp of the death of the desktop end-user application and the birth of the cloud-based end-user application. If this goes as Google plans, and if Microsoft can really eat its young, kill its cash cow, gore its own ox, or whatever animal-kingdom metaphor you prefer, expect to see the tens of thousand of tiny DLLs running amok on your desktop computer go the way of the dodo bird and the dinosaur. Even better, shipping all those DLLs across corporate and home networks to thousands and thousands of workstations nightly may look like a perverse use of a network that some strange and foolish engineers did back in the distant middle ages of unenlightened IT.

In my land of CIO planning, we are architecting the transition from an internal VM farm in our data center to one that can consume resources in the cloud. A little push, and maybe someday we can be completely in the cloud in this stack, provided, of course, the legal and archival issues can be economically solved. Not far behind will be cloud-based enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions and, yes, even ones that have high degrees of customization potential. Yes, Virginia, there are successfully customized ERP solutions delivering strategic value. And yes, someday they will be in the cloud.

Storage remains a curious problem. Due to a combination of tremendous growth in its volume and tremendous inertness of gobs and gobs of stale and rarely accessed data, it still seems to defy easy cloud solutions. Restoring data is a major problem for many data that aren’t easily striped across the world in Googleland or the Amazon server forest. And crisp transactions, needed to actually count numbers accurately, still make it tricky to distribute data a la Facebook and be able to report on corporate earnings. Some legacy systems, due to their enormous costs, may have to wait for the companies or industries to die so they too can pass quietly.

In some cases, the future is easy to predict. This future may be one of those cases. When Google and Microsoft start making large research-and-development investments in cloud applications, especially relative to traditional applications, one only has to mark time on the calendar to wait for the future to unfold. When it does, I have a few questions for CIOs across different industries. What will the data center be used for? How does the network architecture need to change? What will become of old phone and the now fairly long-in-the-tooth internal VoIP technology? How will old-school software vendors react? How will security practices need to change? More importantly, what new forms of data and processing will be coming forward that will cause us to hyperventilate?

While cloud-based everything has a slyly seductive attractiveness to it, what follows it may be scary. In the world of science and healthcare, I see enormous file sizes due to new ways of simulating molecules and atoms and new ways of imaging the human body and tissues, both in place and in the lab. These enormous files may need smallish supercomputers adjacent to the data collection/creation device for immediate processing and fat network pipes to a larger high-performance computing array that can provide further analysis. It may actually prove cheaper to invest in a new class of high-performance servers handling enormously large and fast-moving data locally rather than ship everything to a cloud-based data center on the other side of the planet. After all, electrons move only so fast. What was yesterday’s network closet may need to become tomorrow’s supercomputer closet. What does this mean for building design and power needs?

An increasing number of conventional businesses can have technology live inside cloud providers of many different sorts, but more technology-intense businesses may need even more local processing along with more cloud processing. Performance will still matter and human ambitions may be just a step ahead of Moore’s Law.

For the old IT guard, the new future may look inside-out. Data centers get moved to the edge and out to the cloud. Security, which forever has protected secrets inside the firm’s four walls, now needs to watch over many cloud providers like obsessive-compulsive border collies watching the herd run every which way all at once. Networks between building designs and regions of the country may get more interesting for biotech and scientific research companies but be barely anything for normal personal use cases. Wi-Fi may disappear as most devices coming online are mobile and access a 4G network now fast enough to handle just enough data. Desktops get replaced with fixed screens and keyboards, mice, multitouch, and other input devices that have little to no operating systems in them and phone home to the ever-present cloud to do anything useful. Finally, like floppy drives, CDs, and DVDs, thumb drives will become irrelevant. Kids of tomorrow will gawk, stare, and howl with amusement at these old things just as my son did a few years ago when he ran across his mother’s vinyl records.

It is this future world that some are saying causes the CIO role to go extinct.

Nay, I say. While this transition will occur, the number of firms that actually do anything useful with the technology in this transition will still be distributed along a normally distributed bell curve. A few will do well, many will do quite average, and slightly less than half will do poorly. Companies on the far right side of the bell curve who do well will be better able to extinguish their not-so-lucky competitor.

Why will this bell curve persist? Standing in the way of the promising technology in this transition and its successful use of it are very old human foibles. Such matters as the inability to motivate employees, inspire customers, conceive of new ways of organizing human activities fast enough, old-fashioned human stubbornness and defensiveness, overconfidence, inability to absorb information and conceive of good ways for analyzing information, mismatched cultures that reject new technology until it is too late because of the challenge the new technology represents, and incomplete comprehension of the ever-expanding set of technical options that frustrates executive teams.

When all of us in the business, not just the IT clan, become toolmakers, all of us become subject to toolmaker failings where the joy of fondling the new tool exceeds the desire to advance corporate goals.

Somebody somewhere will need to help in this, and whoever this person is, he or she is going to need to know an awful lot about three things: 1) technology, 2) how it can actually advance an organization, and 3) the human condition. This person will need to herd this often rogue collection of toolmakers to make sure tools are quickly usable in new formations of the organization without draining precious resources. This person will have to think for the whole and anticipate competitor and firm positions so that tool designs are timely and appropriate.

After all, one big reason that Apple has been able to build a billion-dollar baby in the blink of an eye is because a long time ago it fashioned many of its tools — ERP systems and business processes included — to take advantage of this moment. Uncanny foresight will always be valuable and will require uncanny people.

This transition is very conceptual and for many it is quite strategic. But will it be orderly? For individuals and organizations going through this transition, I wonder how many casualties there will be.


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