Is technology progress measured by how far we’ve come or by what remains to be achieved?
The Wall Street Journal (9-10, October 2010) ran an interview with Peter Thiel, who in ranked #377 in Forbes 400 (2008) with a net worth of $1.3 billion. Thiel was a co-founder of Paypal. In 2004, Thiel made a $500,000 investment in Facebook for 25.2% of the company. Nice!
Remarkable for someone who has made a fortune in technology, Thiel now believes, as the Journal puts it, that “American ingenuity has hit a dead end.”
According to Thiel, “people don’t want to believe that technology is broken…Pharmaceuticals, robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology—all (of) these (are) areas where the progress has been a lot more limited than people think.”
Thiel bemoans our inability to achieve the vision of The Jetsons, as he states: “We don’t have flying cars. Space exploration is stalled. There are no undersea cities. Household robots do not cater to our needs…” According to Thiel, we have reached and are stuck in a long-term stagnation.
Thiel’s theory of technology stagnation is completely contrary, I believe, to the reality that most, if not all, of us are living each and every day, where technology is constantly on the move and if anything, we as organizations and individual struggle to keep pace.
For me personally, the refresh rate for technology is 2 years or less, depending on available cash flow for all the new stuff constantly hitting the market.
In my experience, technology is as dynamic as ever, if not more so. In fact, I have seen no evidence that Moore’s Law has been overcome by events (OBE).
Across government, I am seeing the interest and rate of adoption of new technologies steady or on the rise in areas as diverse as cloud computing, mobile computing, social computing, green computing, knowledge management, business intelligence, and geospatial information systems, and more.
There is no shortage of technology investments to make, IT projects to work on, and new technical capabilities to bring to the business.
While we may not have achieved the full vision set out by Hollywood and other technology visionaries, yet—rest assured, we are well are on way and barring unforeseen events, we most certainly will!
I don’t know about Spacely Sprockets’, but I’d place a few good investments bets around on a future that looks pretty darn close to The Jetsons, along with a good dose of Star Trek ingenuity for measure.
Perhaps Mr. Thiel’s views are a result of frustration that we have not achieved all that we can, rather than a reflection that we have not gotten anywhere. In any case, I enjoyed reading his views and look forward to learning more.
One of the foundations of this great country is that we believe in respecting the rights of the individual. This belief is founded on the Judeo-Christian doctrine that every life is valuable and the loss of even one life is like the loss of an entire world.
The rights of the individuals are enshrined in the Bill of Rights that establishes what we consider our fundamental human rights, such as freedom of speech, press, religion, due process, eminent domain, and many others.
The flip side of the protection of individual rights—which is sacred to us—is that it may occasionally come at some “expense” to the collective. This can occur when those individuals who may be adversely affected by a decision, hinder overall societal progress. For example, one could argue that society benefits from the building of highways, clean energy nuclear plants, even prison facilities. Yet, we frequently hear the refrain of “not in my backyard” when these projects are under consideration.
In my neighborhood, where a new train line is proposed, there are signs up and down the street, of people adversely affected, opposing it—whether in the end it is good, bad or indifferent for the community as a whole.
So on one hand we have the rights and valid concerns of the individual, yet on the other hand, we have the progress of the collective. Sure, there are ways to compensate those individuals who are adversely affected by group decisions, but the sheer process of debate—however valuable and justified, indeed—may slow the overall speed of progress down.
Why is this an especially critical issue now?
In a high speed networked world with vast global competition—nation versus nation, corporation versus corporation—speed to market can make a great deal of difference. For example, the speed of the U.S. in the arms and space race with Soviet Union left just one global superpower standing. Similarly, many companies and in fact whole industries have been shut down because they have been overtaken, leapfrogged by the competition. So speed and innovation does matter.
For example, in the field of information technology, where Moore’s Law dictates a new generation of technology every two years of so, the balance of speed to modernization with a foundation of sound IT governance is critical to how we must do business.
Fortune Magazine has an article called “China’s Amazing New Bullet Train (it leaves America in the Dust!)”
China’s new ultra-modern rail system will be almost 16,000 miles of new track running train at up to 220 miles per hours by 2020. China is investing their economic stimulus package of $585 billion strategically with $50 billion going this year alone to the rail system. This compares with the U.S. allocating only $8 billion for high-speed trains over the next three years. Note: that the high speed Amtrak Acela train between Boston and Washington, DC goes a whopping average speed of 79 mph.
One of the reasons that China’s free market is credited with amazing economic progress—for example, GDP growth this year projected at 8.3% (in the global recession)—is their ability to retain some elements of what the military calls a “command and control” structure. This enables decisions to get made and executed more quickly than what others may consider endless rounds of discourse. The down side of course is that without adequate and proper discussion and debate, poor decisions can get made and executed, and individuals’ human rights can get overlooked and in fact sidelined. (Remember the shoddy school construction that resulted in almost 7000 classrooms getting destroyed and many children dying in the Earthquake in China in May 2008?)
So the question is how do we protect the individual and at the same time keep pace—and where possible, maintain or advance our societal strategic competitive advantage?
It seems that there is a cost to moving too slowly in terms of our ability to compete in a timely fashion. Yet, there is also a cost to moving too quickly and making poorly vetted decisions that do not take into account all the facts or all the people affected. Either extreme can hurt us.
What is important is that we govern with true openness, provide justice for all affected, and maintain a process that helps—and does not hinder—timely decisions action.
We cannot afford to make poor decisions—these are expensive—nor do we have the luxury of getting caught up in “analysis paralysis.”
Of course, there are many ways to approach this. One way is to continue to refine our governance processes so that they are just to the individual and agile for our society by continuing to simplify and streamline the decision process, while ensuring that everyone is heard and accounted for. Recently we have seen the use of new information sharing and collaboration technologies, like those provided through social media—wikis, blogs, social networks and more—that can help us to do exchange ideas and work together faster than ever before. Embracing these new technologies can help us to pick up the pace of the vetting process while at the same time enabling more people than ever to participate.
Perhaps social media is one of the only things faster than China’s new bullet trains in helping us to progress how we do business in the 21st century.
The Holy Grail in communications has always been the drive to unify our messaging (data, voice, video) into a single device.
To this day, we continue to see vendors developing consumer products that combine as many of these functions as will possibly fit on a device.
For example, with the traditional copy machine, we have migrated to “all in one” devices that have copy, fax, scan, and print features. At the same time, cell phones have morphed into Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), and have brought together traditional voice telephony with email, chat, web access, GPS, photos, videos, and an almost endless array of applets. Similarly, computers are converging communications functions for email, voice over IP, photos, videos, social networking, and much more. While televisions are merging in features for web access, movies on demand, and so forth.
Convergence is the name of the game–the consumer wants more functionality, more communications capability, more raw computing power, in single, smaller, and sleeker devices.
Ultimately, the vision for mobile communications was first epitomized by the Star Trek’s Communicator with universal language translation and later by the communications badge that with one tap put you in touch with Scotty who could beam you up to the Enterprise in a flash.
So with all the convergence in our communications gear, are we getting any closer to bona fide unified messaging systems?
I don’t know about you, but rather than less communications devices, it seems like I have more and more to fiddle and diddle with. At least two cell phones that balance on opposite sides of my belt (one is my personal phone and the other my work device) and I still have regular landlines at both home and work. Then there is my work computer and my home computer and remote access devices like air cards, tokens, and so forth. Of course, I have Skype, numerous email accounts, FaceBook, Twitter, Blogs, digital cameras, and various printing/copy/faxing/scanning devices to choose from. With various devices in just about every nook and cranny of my work and personal space, I’d say that my ability to community is certainly extensive, but unified, simple, user-centric—I don’t think so!
Government Computer News, 4 May 2009, reports: “Like the paperless office, unified messaging—storing and accessing various types of communications, from e-mail to voice mails, faxes and videos, in a single place—has been something of a chimera.”
With unified messaging, like the Holy Grail, it seems like the more we chase it, the more elusive it becomes.
Perhaps, we have a little bit of Moore’s Law running up against Murphy’s Law here. While the capability for us to do more computationally and functionally with ever smaller devices become greater and greater, the possibility of getting it all to work “right” becomes a greater and greater challenge. Maybe there are limits to how many functions a person can easily understand, access and conveniently control from a single device.
Think for a second about the infamous universal TV remote that has become the scorn of late night comedy. How many people get frustrated with these devices—all the buttons, functions, alt-functions, and so on that no reasonable person seems to care to learn. Or think about the 2 inch think operating instruction booklet that comes with the DVD player or other electronic devices that people are scared to even break the binding on. Then there are the PDA’s with touch screen keypads that you see people fat-fingering and getting the words all wrong. The list goes on and on.
Obviously, this is not user-centric architecture and it doesn’t work, period.
The consumer product company that gets “it”—that can design communications devices for the end-user that are functional and powerful with lots of capability and as close to unified as possible, but at the same time simple, compact, convenient, and easy to use (i.e. intuitive) will crack this unified messaging nut.
We cannot sacrifice ease of use for convergence!
Apple and RIM, in my experience, have probably come closest to this than any other consumer electronic companies, but even here it is a magnificent work-in-progress unfolding before our eyes.
I, for one, can’t wait for the Star Trek communications badge to become commercially available at the local Apple store.
>When companies get cozy, the marketplace gets innovative and from out of nowhere…a disruptive technology upends things.
We’ve seen this happen countless of times in big ways.
In the auto industry, 50 years ago neither GM nor Ford would have ever dreamed that they would lose their virtual monopoly on the U.S. auto industry to foreign car companies that would dislodge them with compact vehicles and hybrid engine technologies.
More recently in the music industry, Apple seized the day by combining functionality, stylishness and price on their iPod player with an accessible online iTunes music store.
More generally, the whole world of e-Commerce has stolen much of the show from the brick and mortar retail outlets with internet marketing, online transaction processing, supply chain management and electronic funds transfer.
Now, another disruption is occurring in the computer market. For years, the computer industry has made every effort to provide more raw computing power, memory, and functionality with every release of their computers. And Moore’s law encapsulated this focus with predictions of doubling every two years.
Now, on the scene comes the Netbook—a simpler, less powerful, less capable computing device that is taking off. Yes, this isn’t the first time that we’ve had a drive toward smaller, sleeker devices (phones, computers, and so on), but usually the functionality is still growing or at the very least staying the same. But with Netbooks smaller truly does mean less capable.
Wired magazine, March 2009, states “ The Netbook Effect: Dinky keyboard. Slow chip. Tiny hard drive. And users are going crazy for them.”
How did we get here?
“For years now, without anyone really noticing, the PC industry has functioned like a car company selling SUVs: It pushed absurdly powerful machines because the profit margins were high, which customers lapped up the fantasy that they could go off-roading, even though they never did.”
So what happened?
“What netbook makers have done is turn back the clock: Their machine perform the way laptops did four years ago. And it turns out that four years ago (more or less) is plenty.”
“It turns out that about 95%…can be accomplished through a browser…Our most common tasks—email, Web surfing, watching streaming videos—require very little processing power.”
The netbook manufactures have disrupted the computer market by recognizing two important things:
- Computer users have adequate computing power for their favorite tasks and what they really want now is more convenience and at a price that says buy me.
- Cloud computing is no longer an idea full of hot air, but it is a technology that is here now and can do the job for consumers. We can get our applications over the web and do not have to run them on our client machines. We can afford to have computers that do less, because the cloud can do more!
Foreign companies are running away with the Netbook market. “By the end of 2008, Asustek had sold 5 million netooks, and other brands together had sold 10 million…In a single year, netbooks had become 7 percent of the world’s entire laptop market. Next year it will be 12%.”
“And when Asustek released the Eee notbook, big firms like Dell, HP, and Apple did nothing for months.” They were taken off guard by miscalculation and complacency.
Of course, the big boys of computing are hoping that the netbook will be a “secondary buy—the little mobile thing you get after you already own a normal size laptop. But it’s also possible, that the next time your replacing an aging laptop, you’ll walk away into the store and wonder, ‘why exactly am I paying so much for a machine that I use for nothing but email and the Web?’ And Microsoft and Intel and Dell and HO and Lenovo will die a little bit inside that day.”
Implications for CIOs?
End complacency and always be on the lookout for disruptive technologies and ways of doing business. There is always a better way!
Hardware becomes a commodity over time and supplying the infrastructure for the organization is moving the way that electricity generation did at the turn of the 20th century—to outside vendors that can do it more effectively and efficiently.
Cloud computing means that commonly used software applications are available over the internet and can be provide the foundation business functionality for the organization.
The important future value add from the Office of CIO is in IT strategy, planning, governance, and mission-focused solutions. We need CIOs that are true leaders, innovative, and focused on the business and not just on the technology.
>Intel is one of the most amazing companies. They are the world’s largest semiconductor company, and the inventor of the popular x86 microprocessor series found in most PCs. Intel has around $40 billion in annual revenue, and ranked 62 in the Fortune 500 last year.
The Wall Street Journal 27-28 September 2008 has an interview with CEO of Intel, Paul Ostellini, that offers some useful lessons for enterprise architects:
- Plan for change—“A CEO’s main job, because you have access to all of the information, is to see the need to change before anyone else does.” It’s great when the CEO has access to the information for seeing ahead and around the curves, but many do not. Information is critical and leaders need plenty of it to keep from steering the enterprise off a cliff. An important role of enterprise architects is provide business and technical information to the CEO and other executives to give them clear vision to the changes needed to grow and safeguard the business. (Perhaps better information would have prevented or reduced the damage to so many companies in dot-com bubble a few years ago and the financial crisis afflicting Wall Street today!)
- Question repeatedly—a prior CEO of Intel, Andrew Grove, taught him “Ask why, and ask it again five more times, until all of the artifice is stripped away and you end up with the intellectually honest answer.” It easy to accept things on face value or to make snap judgments, but to really understand an issue, you need to get below the surface, and the way you do this is to question and dig deeper. I think this is critical for enterprise architects who are evaluating business and technology and providing recommendations to the business that can potentially make or break change efficacy. Architects should not just capture information to plunk into the architecture repository, but should question what they are seeing and hearing about the business, validate it, categorize it, and analyze it, to add value to it before serving that information up to decision makers.
- Measure Performance—“we systematically measured the performance of every part of the company to determine what was world class and what wasn’t. Then as analytically as possible, –we made the cuts…and saved $3 billion in overall spending.” Measuring performance is the only way to effectively manage performance. If decisions are to be anything more than gut and intuition, they need to be based on quantifiable measures and not just subjective management whim. Enterprise architects need to be proponents for enterprise-wide performance measurement. And not just at the top level either. Performance measures need to be implemented throughout the enterprise (vertically and horizontally) and dashboard views need to be provided to executives to make the measures visible and actionable.
- Communicate, communicate—“I made it my job to communicate, communicate, communicate the positive message. I did open forums, I did Webcasts, I told the employees to send me questions via email and I’d answer them…you have to convince them through reasoning and logic, the accuracy of your claims.” Good communication is one of those areas that are often overlooked and underappreciated. Leadership often just assumes that people will follow because they are “the leaders”. NOPE! People are not sheep. They will not follow just because. People are intelligent and want to be respected and explained to why….communication early and often is the key. The approach to architecture that I espouse, User-centric EA, focuses on the users and effectively communicating with them—each the way they need to absorb the information and at the level that is actionable to them. Making architecture information easy to understand and readily available is essential to help make it valuable and actionable to the users. User-centric EA uses principles of communication and design to do this.
Intel, in its 40 year history, has repeatedly planned for change, measured it, and managed it successfully. Intel’s CEO, Gordon Moore, is the epitome of driving change. Moore, the founder of Moore’s Law, captured the exponential change/improvement in silicon chip performance—identifying that the number of transistors packed on silicon chip would double every two years. Intel’s subsequent obsession with Moore’s Law has kept them as the dominant player in computer processors and may lead them to dominance in cell phones and other mobile devices as well.