Vendor vision quests

There's something ironic about the way so many vendors are talking about simplifying computing environments yet struggling to explain their visions in terms that make sense to anybody. Carly Fiorina was Exhibit A of this conundrum recently, as the Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO tried in vain to explain her “adaptive enterprise” strategy by saying it was built on “Darwinian reference architectures”.

What? Is that just a complicated way of saying “evolutionary”?

Listening to IBM bigwigs explain on-demand computing, or Sun Microsystems honchos talk about N1 automation technologies, or Oracle’s Larry Ellison discuss grid computing, could induce a similar brain cramp. When you strip away the carefully branded marketing buzzwords, what the IT market leaders are talking about (and hoping to sell) are increasingly sophisticated software, hardware and services to accomplish one or more of these tasks:

  • Automating and integrating technical and business processes.
  • “Virtualising” or provisioning computing resources on increasingly self-managing networks.
  • Redeploying under-used resources to match user demands or business needs.
  • Consolidating platforms into simpler, and cheaper, architectures (often Linux running on Intel boxes).
  • Putting “pay-by-the-drink” consumption into play for software, hardware and even services.

I’ve become a little obsessed lately with finding what one of my editors sardonically calls a Grand Unified Buzzword (GUB) for all of the above. Being a big believer in language that makes sense of things, I’ve been searching for a vendor-jargon-free, catch-all phrase that would make sense of all the pitches, from autonomic and on-demand to adaptive and utility computing. I thought a revival of that old standby, next-generation computing could tie a neat, conceptual ribbon around everything.

So last week I tried my new GUB on a roomful of veterans of vendor strategies: a chapter of the Association of IT Professionals. These IT experts listened politely but gave my unified buzzword a definitive thumbs down. To experienced IT managers, next generation has come to mean generic hype about cool technology nobody can make practical use of yet.

Well then, I challenged, what would they call it? That launched an entertaining contest to pick the best word to describe where computing is headed. The favourites were transparent, pervasive, accessible, intuitive and effortless. All of them, you’ll notice, speak to a simpler user experience. There wasn’t a “Darwinian reference architecture” in sight.

AITP member Ray Causey, a partner at Tatum CIO Partners and former CIO at Mailboxes Etc., said he believes the business value of more simplified applications — the fewer features, the better — would actually allow vendors to charge more than they do now for the complex, user-unfriendly stuff. “You’d end up with users who are more productive and getting the job done, leaving CIOs to concentrate on adding business value in other areas,” Causey said. “Easy-to-use software would actually enhance the CIO’s image as a business-focused executive.”

Summing up the situation nicely, Reid Warrick, president of TeraCenter, said: “All of the cool stuff we need today already exists. What we need to do is to put it together and make use of it. Now the question is: can the major players come together to take computing to the next level?”

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