Opinion: Users are taking the lead in IT

Over the past several years, few IT industry developments have been covered by the media as eagerly as Wal-Mart Stores' efforts in RFID and McDonald's and Starbucks' support for Wi-Fi. Much of this interest stems from the simple fact that most people prefer to read and write about things they actually know something about. Most stories about the projects of IT customers are a step or two away from our daily experiences, which makes them feel somewhat less real and compelling.

But there's also a deeper, more important attraction at work. These stories are telling us that something in the technology business is changing. The establishment of major new information technologies has nearly always been a vendor-led process. But with RFID and Wi-Fi, it seems clear that it's customers who are taking the lead. This is indeed newsworthy.

Look back at the evolution of the key technologies we work with today. Who did most of the initial promotion, who drove the standards process, and who tried to set the timetable for the marketplace to move forward? Overwhelmingly, IT vendors took the lead on these types of issues. But can you name any major RFID or Wi-Fi suppliers? Most of us can't, but even the general public seems to know what's happening at Wal-Mart, Starbucks and McDonald's.

Ultimately, the establishment of a new technology is about leadership, risk-taking and doing whatever is necessary to help it reach critical mass. This is what IT vendors are financially motivated to do, and it's what they stay up at night worrying about. That's why it's so easy for them to slip over the line into hype. The pressure on them to promote and succeed is often relentless.

But isn't this exactly what is happening now with Wal-Mart? The company is becoming synonymous with the commercial use of RFID in the same way that PalmOne has been with PDAs, or Microsoft with tablet PCs. This means that if RFID technology proves to be immature, if partners resist or if key deadlines are missed, it's Wal-Mart that will take the media heat and lose credibility, just as Microsoft does when projects such as Longhorn stretch into the indefinite future.

From a broader industry perspective, the key question is whether this shift from supplier to customer leadership is limited to these isolated cases or is part of a wider trend. The evidence suggests that it's the latter. Look at the role that Amazon is playing in Web services, or the way RosettaNet and others are moving forward on the next generation of supply chain standards.

For decades, customers have complained that IT vendors hype their products and deliberately build in self-serving levels of incompatibility. They have accused vendors of everything from greed to incompetence and dishonesty. But these same customers will soon find out whether they can do the job any better themselves. If they can't, today's mostly friendly media coverage will surely turn sour.

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