The tech world is a slave to innovation and the hype that surrounds it. Everything is better, shinier, and more essential than the last wave. Buy in to the latest trend or find yourself washed out.
At least that's the sales pitch.
[ More cold water for IT management: Read about the 10 hard truths IT must learn to accept and the 12 hard truths about cloud computing | Stay on top of the state of the cloud with InfoWorld's "Cloud Computing Deep Dive" special report. | For the latest news and happenings, subscribe to the Cloud Computing Report newsletter. ]
Of course, not every hyped technology or IT strategy is snake oil. The main stew may very well be chock-full of awesomeosity. Alas, everything, no matter how wonderful, comes with one or more side dishes of problems, annoyances, and grief. The tech world loves to focus on the main course and forget about the helping of reality needed to balance out the meal.
What follows is an overview of the hidden dark sides of today's hottest tech trends. Consider it a stink-eye gleam on what's dangerous, unsettling, or outright horrible about the latest amazing ideas floating through the tech memespace -- and a heads-up on what IT should watch out for when the infatuation for the latest and greatest in IT technology and strategy wears off.
The hidden dark side of PaaS
The trade-off always seems better than it is. Forgo spending thousands of dollars to buy and host a server in favor of a subscription to a neat cloud-based service that's priced like a cup of coffee or, in some instances, a stick of gum. Heck, the neat service might even be entirely ad-supported.
The thought of renting technology for pennies is great even if it's just for a microsecond. Who wouldn't want to shop at the cloud five-and-dime instead of plunking down purchase orders for thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars? Anyone who has had to recover from the collapse of one of these free or cheap companies, that's who. In many cases, the failure of just one service messes up the software you've written at four of the other PaaS offerings. They fall like dominos.
New tools like this are a real gamble for the people who work there and the people who buy into them at the beginning. They're fine for light experimentation, but the danger escalates quickly as your reliance on them for infrastructure gets at all serious. Even if they're willing to commit to a great SLA (service-level agreement), that's not worth much if they go out of business, quintuple the price, change any aspect of their infrastructure without providing meaningful, discoverable documentation, decide it's no longer cost-effective for them to provide backward compatibility or to support your quickly "aging" app.
BYOD (bring your own device) begins as a way to empower employees to choose the laptops, tablets, and smartphones they prefer, but it quickly devolves into yet another chore for everyone. Not only must people perform their usual work duties, but they must now install updates and new software, bear greater responsibility for troubleshooting and repairing their devices, and shop for a new hardware every year or so. This isn't so bad for programmers who know how to care for software, but it's a nightmare for anyone around the office who's not tech-savvy and has better things to do.
[ More news and research: The Consumerization of IT and BYOD Guide ]
BYOD also introduces significant incompatibilities across the IT fleet in that few employees will install the same software in the same way, let alone on the same hardware models. If Chris's Mac breaks, Chris won't want to borrow Pat's PC. And Pat will definitely not want to loan her laptop to Chris, especially if the company doesn't subsidize its BYOD policy. Pat may be a team player, but she isn't anyone's fool. What if Chris clicks on the wrong link and gives Pat a virus? The only thing worse than the rigid fascism of some IT shops is the absolute chaos of stepping blindly into BYOD.
The hidden dark side of crowdfunding
There's a building in Washington filled with thousands of attorneys who together call themselves the Securities Exchange Commission. That agency was built over decades because fast-talking, glad-handing peddlers of big dreams are always trying to sell a "piece of the action" to the public without delivering. Stockbrokers were the original crowdfunding hucksters, and the SEC has been trying to corral them ever since.
While everyone wants to believe it's different this time, there's no reason why crowdfunding sites won't experience the same kind of shady dealings, miscalculations, and outright fraud that has marred Wall Street.
The smart people are treating their investments in the cool gadgets as Lotto tickets that may or may not pay off. They're not spending money they can't lose.
The hidden dark side of tablets as PC replacements
Some folks just love to waltz into a conference room with a tablet and rave to any poor sucker with a laptop about how much they can accomplish with their new device. No more need for a desktop or even a laptop, they say, stabbing their fingers at the glass. This may be true if the only thing they do for work is browse the Web and generate short, semi-grammatical responses to emails.
Real writing demands a keyboard, and by the time you add a functional one to a tablet, it weighs about as much as a laptop. Real drawing requires the precision of a mouse and not some fat finger moving across a glass covered with a thin veneer of grease leftover from lunch.
Bigger problems lie deeper. The operating systems are often limited and the tablet companies keep the tablet operating systems as locked down as they can. Custom apps aren't easy to distribute, and they're harder to develop. Open source software is rare -- partially because you're not supposed to do anything but download apps from the official store. Things are more open in the world of Android tablets, but that openness seems to help only the programmers who have the tools and wherewithal to root around beneath the veneer. In the tablet paradigm, the average person isn't supposed to understand files or how to do anything but push big buttons with fat fingers. Just be happy on the plantation built by the big corporations. Don't touch anything under the hood.
The hidden dark side of big data
The new book from Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier makes a persuasive article that the huge mathematical engines churning through oceans of data don't need to be absolutely correct. The statistical combines only need to offer some insight into the problem to make it worth their time.
That's often correct, but the real job is separating the worthwhile insight from the chaff. The statistical analysis needs editing by a competent human to rule out the obvious ("Winter coats sell well in November and December"), the trivial ("Left and right gloves often sell as pairs"), and the expiring ("Coral pink with blue glitter sold well on the second Thursday of April.")
In other words, the algorithms may be able to spot correlations left and right, but the human must figure out whether there is any real causation to be exploited, not to mention how to exploit it. Unfortunately, much of the discussion around big data doesn't alight organizations to the amount of expertise or training that is necessary to make the most of the technology, let alone whether your organization really has enough data to be considered "big."
The hidden dark side of gamification
Can everything be made more enjoyable if it's turned into a game? Even taxes? The stern, civic-minded taskmasters would beg to differ. "It should be done joyfully," they might agree, before adding, "We all have a duty to contribute to the commonweal and ensure that the blessings of government flow ceaselessly. Funding this new park or sewer line isn't a game by any means."
OK, what about losing weight or petting your cat or cleaning your house? Perhaps, but like all games, the magic tends to wear off. How many times can you play Monopoly?
Then there's the trivialness of those little round GIFs taking up room on the Web page. How many awards can a grown man or woman stand? The badge trick works with 10-year-olds, but even the teenagers have seen through the facade of gold stars, smiley faces, and blue ribbons. I've personally battled several people for the mayorship for the local grocery store, but the magic wore off the second time I deposed them and liberated the people from their despotic rule.
If the companies try to up the ante and offer a real pot of gold, the whole endeavor becomes as serious as a job because that's what you call something that leads to a paycheck. Then there are those nasty anti-gambling laws that seem to get in the way when you mix fun and money.
And don't think "gamifying" your internal knowledge management system is going to raise the collective IQ of your organization. If anything, you'll probably have the employees you'd rather have playing Farmville all day crowned kings and queens of your company's business-development fiefdom.
The hidden dark side of social media
Remember when friends were people you actually liked to visit, maybe go on an adventure with or a run or a trip to a museum? Now the word has morphed into something very different from what Carole King meant she wrote "You've Got a Friend." The percentage that will come running is vanishingly small.
Too many of the wonderful stories of reconnecting with lost chums are followed by the emptiness that comes when people realize why the friendship faded before. Too few of the status updates truly mingle our souls like a well-crafted letter once did.
The systems encourage noise, amplify emotions, nurture our worst mob behavior, and encourage endless begging for affirmation. The endless chatter often seems like a proof of William Yeats' claim that "the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Is it any wonder that the newest systems want to differentiate themselves by limiting contact and reducing the interaction between people?
Besides performing brand damage control on the external networks or mining employee networks for sales leads, do you really want your employees bringing that mentality to collaborative projects re-engineered to make the most of the "promise" of a shiny, new enterprise social networking platform?
The hidden dark side of Bitcoin
It's a stateless wonder that's going to save us from fiat currency by curbing the ability of governments (or really anyone) from printing their way out of trouble. Hard-money devotees and anyone sweating after the collapse of Cyprus are enamored with it.
But even if the math is sound, there are legitimate questions about whether all that abstraction is really what people want or need. Bits are even more fragile than paper. It's one thing to lose a hard disk with your kid's homework, and it's another to lose your life savings in Bitcoins. Viruses, disk crashes, hackers, and everything else that can go wrong with a computer are even worse when we entrust our nest eggs to them. Yes, most banks are essentially databases with a network of branches, but the people in the network are heavily regulated and used to insuring against fragility and error.
If these are solved with backups and better hacking protection, there's still the question about how much a Bitcoin is worth. There's no intrinsic value, and the marketplace may fluctuate much more than dollars or gold. It's just defined by the marketplace. While the U.S. dollar is theoretically the same, the reserve banking system injects a fair amount of stability. Political control actually matters.
The biggest problem, though, may be the newness. We may find ways to deal with the occasional anonymity and the mathematics, but all of that experimentation will take time. People may not be ready to jump in with both feet. As Ron Paul, the former Congressman from Texas with a history of distrusting central authority said, "If I can't put it in my pocket, I have problems with it."
The hidden dark side of Internet of things
In the future, we're going to be able to log into our cars, our coffeemakers, and even our sneakers. Everything will be collecting data and swapping it with someone else who will use it to feed us even more ads so that we can buy more things with even bigger or better data feeds.
Do we really want the Internet, that breeding ground for computer viruses, to be hooked up to our things? Do we want our car's brakes to have their own IP address in case any junior high student wants to experiment with a distributed denial-of-service attack? The same goes for our gas stove, furnace, or anything else filled with hydrocarbons.