100 Not Out

A glance back in CIO's rearview mirror . . .

The change in technology since this magazine published its first issue 100 front covers ago should never cease to amaze. Yet it does. We are too blase about the genius and innovation that is offered to us every day. Billions of dollars are spent on RD every year by companies that knock on our doors, seeking business and profit from their investment.

Dismissing the "computer salesman" is too easy. Most CIOs keep their doors closed to the majority, seeking counsel from only a chosen few. In doing so, their view of technology and society risks becoming skewed, even sheltered.

A near-decade since the presses first rolled for CIO, the IT sector has transformed yet retains a haunting familiarity. Let's start with a bizarre example: Dilbert. He has not changed his look in a decade. Thick-rimmed glasses, nasty shirt and stripe-tie combo with ballpoints in a breast pocket . . . IT professionals don't look like this. Some do, of course, but it is not stereotypical any more. We like to think it is. It feels safe. Yet, time moves on and I await to see Dilbert IM-ing anyone or using a VoIP phone application.

Doonesbury, the American political satire strip, embraces IM and many more facets of modern life. Meanwhile, in the IT department, where modern-day Dilberts bounce between the partitions, it seems the more we claim we can change the business world with technology, the more it refuses to budge; such sorrowful insecurity.

Doonesbury is not the only quirk that inspires nostalgia of a decade past. My new toy, an iPod Nano, crashed the other day - gave up the ghost for no apparent reason. And then, after 10 minutes of pressing seemingly every button combination possible, it sprang back to life. Brilliantly clever, highly fashionable and still crashing - just like Apple computers of the mid and late 90s.

Apple - now there is an icon of innovation that has dodged the bullets of commerce to be more profitable and recognizable than ever. If you had predicted even four years ago it would enshrine its fame with a matchbox-sized music gadget (something called an MP3 player), most of us would have dismissed such craziness and said Apple was rotting.

Yet, its father and creator, Steve Jobs, continues to demonstrate that the more things change, the more things change: period. Maybe he's not as successful as Bill Gates, but surely a greater genius for understanding technology and people.

Boom to Bust

Apple is not the only fashionable tech label today. There is one other. Google. After which come a bunch of wannabes, such as Yahoo, Skype, eBay, Amazon and Dell. None has penetrated the public psyche like Google. For those who hanker for the old days, it is a delicious feeling to confuse this modern-day icon with the Microsoft of a decade ago; a black box of public emotion and statement, mightily competitive and innovative - surely a company to dominate for at least half a century, selling anything from eyeballs to advertisers, IP telephony services to your own company, and goodness knows what to your children.

Bill Gates now has a worthy opponent in the high-tech heavyweight division ­- a facet of this industry sadly lacking so far in CIO's 100-issue history. The industry's carping about Microsoft's success was a significant and historical punctuation point of CIO's early days. The likes of Jim Barksdale (Netscape), Scott McNealy (Sun Microsystems) and Larry Ellison (Oracle) were either up to their neck in the US Justice Department investigation into Microsoft's anti-competitive practices, or shouting loudly from the sidelines.

That investigation was a catalyst for the dotcom crash, a milestone event that has been tied to the neck of the tech sector by media and corporate executives (especially CFO-types and associated know-it-alls) as evidence that technology is an untrustworthy web of unfilled promises, lies and guesswork. Ridiculously, it felt like we were all responsible in some way for that stock landslide.

Together with the proliferation of the Internet, the dotcom collapse is arguably the most significant event for the tech sector since CIO was launched. It created a new generation of companies that are stronger and smarter than Version 1.x, if I may characterize it as that. Only the well-run and strong - IBM, Intel, Dell, Cisco, Oracle, SAP as mainstream examples - survived and even thrived.

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Now, we are seeing the next generation rise. Gone are the days when IBM told you what to buy; so too are the days when you told IBM what you would pay for. Now, technology is driven by the mobile phone-wielding, MP3-playing user.

While you perhaps ask yourself what the "next big thing" will be, let me tell you categorically: the user is the next big thing. In fact, it's better than that. There are tens of "next big things", all of which the user wants. We are increasingly being surrounded by their gadgetry desires and our world is being shaped by them.

Those who cannot see this are simply blinded by cynicism, prejudice or nostalgia when Dilbert-like colleagues existed in Roman Legion-like numbers.

The words of another magazine, FastCompany, have long inspired and fuelled my own belief in the "next big thing". On its November '95 front cover, it stated this: "Work is Personal, Computing is Social, Knowledge is Power, Break the Rules". Any CIO who cannot see this and understand what it means for their company is truly going to struggle.

Next Big Things are all around us. They are new collaborative tools, such as wikis, to improve the way we work and enhance the quality of our products. Or swickis to help us improve the results we get from search engines. Blogs and so-called Blogspheres are just two ways in which increasing numbers communicate, throwing out the rule book on how one-way conversations between companies and customers, or management and workers, should be conducted.

Kevin Roberts, the respected global head of Saatchi Saatchi, said recently: "The corporate organization is going to change. No longer will there be a few people at the top and millions in middle management. It is going to become a lot of people at the top thinking strategy and a lot of people at the bottom executing it. Sod all in the middle." If he is right, then only collaborative technologies, as well as Business Intelligence-type tools, can make this happen.

Increasing speeds of broadband - those overseas if not in the junkyard environment of Australia's online world - are giving us access to new media and marketing techniques. We can phone across the planet for 2c thanks to Skype. Even companies such as Engin, the broadband telephony company, are getting traction in Australian homes. (Telstra RIP, unless it wakes up to itself and stops bleating about regulation).

Technology has already ravaged the job ads market, has seduced car classifieds, is slowly but surely eating away at the real estate advertising sector, and will surely keep marching forward as traditional media does its best to hold on to what it has, and work out where its future lies.

Music can never be the same again - even though the theft of illegal downloads continues. PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that while 250 million music files were downloaded last year, that figure will top a billion by 2008. And who has a garage sale any more? For 10 bucks, stick it on eBay and get your Saturday morning back, you loser!

The next time you log on to a wireless network at an airport, at home or even walking down the street, remind yourself that you are surrounded by a tsunami of "Next Big Things". Your challenge is to lead your organization to work out how to use them profitably. And that challenge will surely dominate the pages of the next 100 issues of CIO magazine.

Mark Hollands is Asia-Pacific vice-president of the research and ­consulting organization Gartner

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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