by Steff Gelston

Trendlines from 4/15/08: New, Hot, Unexpected

Apr 11, 200813 mins
DeveloperIT Leadership

In this issue: The cap on H-1B visas; Corporate mash-ups; Face-reading computers; The lapsing landline; China and RFID; Banning of social networks; The value of big monitors; Efficiency in IT shops; and By the numbers, including IT modernization.

Bill Would Double Cap on H-1B Visas

A bill before the U.S. Congress would double the number of immigrant worker visas available each year under the H-1B program.

The Innovation Employment Act, introduced last month by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., would raise the H-1B visa cap from 65,000 a year to 130,000 a year. In addition, there would be no cap on H-1B applications for foreign graduate students attending U.S. colleges and studying science, technology and related fields. Currently, there’s a 20,000-a-year cap on visas for graduate students in all fields. The legislation would increase the H-1B cap to 180,000 in 2010 to 2015 if the 130,000 cap is reached the year before.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates called for an increase in the H-1B visa cap while testifying before the House of Representatives Science and Technology Committee in March. “We provide the world’s best universities…and the students are not allowed to stay and work in the country,” Gates said. The legislation “would boost America’s competitiveness by giving U.S. employers the flexibility they need to hire the best talent available to fill a severe shortage of qualified U.S. high-skilled workers,” the company said in a statement.

The bill would increase penalties for H-1B fraud and allows the U.S. Department of Labor to reject applications for “clear indicators of fraud,” in addition to the current rule of rejecting only applications that are inaccurate or incomplete. It also puts important safeguards on the H-1B program in place, says C.J. Karamargin, a spokesman for Giffords. It would prohibit companies from hiring H-1B workers, then outsourcing them to other companies, he says. Opponents have complained that outsourcing companies are among the top users of H-1B visas. The legislation would also prohibit companies with more than 50 employees that have more than half of their staff as H-1B workers from hiring more H-1Bs, and it would prohibit employers from advertising jobs as available only to H-1B workers, Karamargin says.

Critics say the bill does little to address worker concerns. “It doesn’t require any kind of labor market test—demonstrating that a shortage actually exists before hiring an H-1B,” says Ron Hira, a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and former chairman of the Career and Workforce Policy Committee at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers-USA. The bill also doesn’t fix “serious problems” in setting wage floors for H-1B workers and does “nothing to curb the practice of companies bringing in computer programmers for $12 per hour to displace U.S. workers,” Hira says. “If this bill were to be passed as written, it would do serious damage to the American information technology labor market.”

-Grant Gross

Now Businesses Can Get Mashed Up

Mash-ups are going corporate. IBM recently announced it has created code to secure mash-ups for businesses. Analysts say the technology will let companies merge data from websites or corporate systems to create rich Internet applications without exposing proprietary information

“This technology will allow people to create a mash-up without worrying that it will go phishing for personal data or financial information,” says IBM Vice President of Emerging Technology Rod Smith. IBM calls the technology Smash, short for “secure mash-up.” Big Blue contributed the code for Smash to the OpenAjax Alliance, a vendor group dedicated to the adoption of open and interoperable Ajax-based Web technologies.

According to IBM, the technology keeps mash-ups secure by separating the code and data from the two applications being combined. Once the code of the applications is separated, it merges the apps by opening a secure communications channel.

Smith says that business users, not just developers and technologists, will be able to utilize the tool to create their own applications. He adds that the apps can be pushed as widgets onto corporate workspaces on the intranet or over the Web. “They can grab snippets of information or parts of applications,” he says. “They need the flexibility of assembling information based on their current business needs.”

Developers still must do some work to make Smash more accessible to the novice user on the front end, notes Forrester analyst Jeffrey Hammond. “The technology provides the framework or the basis for users to do it on their own, but [developers] will need to build on top of it first,” he says.

-C.G. Lynch

Coming Soon: Computers That Read Faces

Your computer may soon know when you’re in a bad mood. Researchers have developed an algorithm that can recognize a person’s facial expressions and categorize them as expressing anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.

Researchers at the Department of Artificial Intelligence of the Polytechnic University of Madrid’s School of Computing worked with Madrid’s King Juan Carlos University to develop a prototype software that can process a sequence of moving faces and recognize the person’s facial expression. The software monitors facial movements in several parts of the face, examining up to 30 images per second. The data is compared to expressions captured from 333 sequences of people from the Cohn-Kanade database, with an 89 percent success rate.

According to the researchers, applications that might take advantage of these capabilities include advanced human—computer interfaces, metaverse avatars and e-commerce.

Paul Williams, a software architect at LexisNexis Examen, believes the technology would make a great usability testing tool to help developers learn whether users are frustrated by the software or device.

“This kind of objective measurement would be far more useful and accurate than subjective measurements, such as surveys, questionnaires or even third-party observation,” he says.

-Esther Schindler

Hanging Up on Landline

The cell phone has finally passed the landline as the hardest communication technology for people to give up. It also beat out the Internet, television, e-mail and the BlackBerry (or other wireless e-mail devices).

People say it would be harder to give up:

Source: Pew Internet & American Life Project

2007 2002
Cell phone 51% 38%
Internet 45% 38%
Television 43% 47%
Landline telephone 40% 63%
E-mail 37% 35%
Blackberry or wireless e-mail device 36% 6%

China Emerges as Largest RFID Market

Radio frequency identification technology has generated considerable buzz among American businesses. However, the largest concentration of RFID applications in use isn’t in the U.S. Look instead to China.

The Chinese government’s national identification card program is currently the biggest RFID project in the world in terms of overall value, according to the recent ID TechEx report, “RFID in China 2008-2018.” The rollout has an overall estimated worth of $6 billion, which includes all the associated RFID tags and systems, such as card readers.

The Chinese ID card project began in 2005. Once it has been completed at the end of this year, nearly 1 billion government ID cards embedded with an RFID chip will have been issued, states a recent ABI Research report.

“Unfortunately, all good things must end,” writes ABI’s Research Director Michael Liard, noting the project’s upcoming conclusion. “That one program generated significant revenue for local vendors and stood out in terms of its size and scope. However, China must prepare for RFID’s next wave and the applications that will keep China in the RFID spotlight.

According to ABI Research, a wide range of application initiatives are on tap in China: transportation ticketing, animal tagging, anticounterfeiting, real-time location systems, asset tracking, e-ticketing and contactless payments. The total market revenue for all those projects in 2008 will reach nearly $1.4 billion, states the report.

-Thomas Wailgum

More Companies Ban Social Networks

Companies continue to clamp down on social networking sites at work. Nearly 20 percent of organizations surveyed by security vendor MessageLabs blocked social networking and dating sites in February due to concerns about employee productivity and malware.

“Organizations need to raise awareness about the risks of these sites,” says Paul Wood, a security analyst with MessageLabs. IT departments, he suggests, need to update electronic use policies to reflect newer Web 2.0 technologies. “Some of the policies are not up to date.”

Wood says it wasn’t always clear how malware entered users’ computers or networks as a result of using social networks. However, he cited a case where a user visited a fake MySpace page that served a pop-up ad that looked like a Microsoft software update. Clicking on it took the user to an illegitimate site that tried to install malware over JavaScript.

The report echoes the concerns IT leaders expressed in a recent survey of consumer technology by CIO. Nearly 10 percent view social networks such as Facebook and MySpace as the biggest consumer technology threat to their organizations. Around 18 percent cited consumer-based e-mail like Hotmail, Yahoo and Gmail as the greatest threat to their organizations.

However, Wood says, “It’s not just about e-mail anymore. People need to know how to conduct themselves on blogs, IM and social networks.”

If IT institutes electronic use policies that educate users about the sites they visit, better security will follow, Wood argues. “It’s more of a management issue than a technology issue,” he says.

-C.G. Lynch

When Bigger Means Better

Can you see your way to wasting less time?

One new study says yes: Organizations that upgrade their employees’ standard-format monitors to wide-screen displays can realize productivity gains equivalent to 76 extra workdays a year per worker, as well as annual cost savings of more than $8,600 per staff member. (That math assumes a staffer who makes $32,500 annually.)

The study, called “Productivity, Screens and Aspect Ratio,” was conducted by the University of Utah and sponsored by NEC, a maker of computer monitors.

Ninety-six university staffers, faculty and students, broken into three different computer aptitude sets&mdash:novice, intermediate and advanced—participated in the study, which took into account the time needed to complete set spreadsheet and editing tasks, editing performance and monitor preference, among other factors. All three groups were significantly more productive using 24-inch or larger wide-screen monitors (1920×1200 resolution, or larger) compared to 18-inch displays (1280×1024 resolution), according to the research.

The study found that upgrading workers’ 18-inch, standard-format monitors to 24-inch wide-screen displays cut the average time to complete such tasks by more than 30 percent.

Additional findings include:

Large wide-screen or dual-monitor configurations are better suited for work that involves multiple documents or applications.

Twenty-four-inch wide-screen displays are better suited for text editing than both single standard-format (17-inch and 19-inch) and dual standard-format (17-inch and 19-inch) monitor configurations.

Dual wide-screen configurations in 22 inches or larger are better for spreadsheet editing than single wide-screen or standard-format displays.

Net annual cost savings of using 24-inch wide-screen monitors in place of standard-format, 18-inch monitors, including electricity and monitor costs, is roughly $2.1 million a year for 250-employee companies and about $4.3 million for firms with 500 staffers.

-Al Sacco

Theory of Efficiency

It’s not enough that mid-market IT shops have to feel slightly envious of big-company IT departments and their access to seemingly unlimited resources, tools and staff. Now an analysis of recent data trends shows that IT departments in Fortune 1000 enterprises are more productive and effective service providers than mid-market counterparts&mash;and it has nothing to do with the amount of staffers or money spent.

“The staff-versus-budget argument is based on a false assumption—it improperly assumes that resources committed to IT are used efficiently and effectively. However, in the majority of IT organizations, they are not,” writes Hank Marquis, director of IT service management consulting at Enterprise Management Associates, in the report “Are IT Budgets Too Big?”

Conventional wisdom holds that large companies’ IT shops are more effective since these companies have deeper pockets. That logic is incorrect, according to Marquis. He suggests looking instead at the “user-to-IT-worker” ratio in midsize and large companies. “Larger companies of the Fortune 1000 support almost three times—2.9 times, to be precise—as many users per IT staff member than mid-market companies,” he writes. This makes “mid-market IT organizations only about one-third as effective as their larger Fortune 1000 cousins.”

The problem? “It’s not more staff that’s needed,” Marquis concludes. “Existing staff must become more productive.” The report offers several tips for improving productivity.

Manage human capital. Invest in training and new skills for staff and actively measure worker performance.

Improve business process management. Research process-oriented frameworks like ITIL, Six Sigma or formal IT project management.

Service customers efficiently. Encourage IT staff to communicate with end users in order to understand their needs.

-Thomas Wailgum

By the Numbers

Why IT Modernization Should Be on Your Radar

strategy If IT modernization isn’t a top priority at your organization this year, it should be, according to a recent report from consultancy Gartner. The reason? By 2010, more than a third of all application projects will be driven by the need to deal with technology or skills obsolescence, according to the report.

Gartner defines IT modernization as a movement that recognizes the strategies for and approaches to managing the evolution of business processes and applications, and supporting technology portfolios for optimized value, cost and risk objectives. To achieve that goal, CIOs need to address strategic planning capabilities and focus them on IT asset modernization.

Three main factors drive the need to modernize now, says Dale Vecchio, research VP in application governance and strategy at Gartner. The most significant is the skills crisis.

“It’s a big deal. It’s the first time a generational shift in developers and consumers of IT has been felt,” he says. “Baby boomer retirement is becoming real. These retirements impact the availability of skills, and CIOs will have difficulty filling those open slots.” Other factors include the agility gap (IT’s ability to respond to business demands) and portfolio diversity (managing too many systems, resulting in additional costs). Digital natives brought up on Facebook, IM and the Internet are another factor. These employees have a different expectation of how IT systems should work, says Vecchio. Today’s systems, he says, aren’t necessarily built for that.

So how do you know if your organization needs to modernize now? Review the status of your long-term strategic plan. If your IT management team has weak or nonexistent processes for keeping up with and replacing systems, IT modernization should be on your radar.

Best Practices

Drive the agenda. As CIO, expect to drive the discussion around IT modernization directly, using the full resources of the IT management team.

Gather information. Identify key asset portfolios across the IT domain, and assign management responsibility across the IT management team for each asset portfolio.

Identify a point person. Find the best individual to take responsibility for comprehensive IT planning across all portfolios. Make this person a direct report.

Get the big picture. Organize an offsite planning session where asset owners can explain the IT maturity and modernization issues inside their own portfolios.

IT Modernization Moves Up As Issues Mount

Up to 30% of employees with IT legacy skills will be eligible to retire in the next three years. At the same time, many artifacts (old programs, databases, platforms, etc.) will need to be replaced between 2008 and 2015.

CIOs list legacy modernization, upgrades or replacements as their No. 4 priority for 2008. In 2006 it ranked No. 10. Source: Gartner