We've Got to Admit IT's Getting Better

"The further backward you look, the further forward you can see." - Winston Churchillni It may have taken 20 years for the personal computer to truly capture the imagination of the world, but these days, the future is coming at us at lightning speed. The first commercial Web browsers have been on the market for only four years, and already they are ubiquitous. In a relatively brief period of time, every business model on the planet has been turned on its head. With the pace of technological change destined only to increase, it's imperative to prepare for an unpredictable future. But how? It's hard to know if it's better to talk to colleagues, attend conferences, read books by futurists or simply visit a tarot card reader.

Ironically enough, we think you'll learn much about the future by taking a look at the past. This special issue's journey begins 30 years ago at the dawn of the computing age as we know it, when developments that would change the business world began to appear: the Internet (ARPAnet back then), Ethernet networks, IBM's System 370 mainframe, the Alto personal computer. Technology hot spots such as Xerox PARC emerged, where many of the new industry's founders honed their skills. Before long, scrappy young companies opened their doors and began to populate an indescribable, dusty zone of land south of San Francisco in a place we now call Silicon Valley.

By looking at the IT inventions and trends that shaped the last three decades, we hope to illuminate what worked, what didn't and how we can take those lessons forward into the next 30 years. Senior Editor Anne Stuart provides a glimpse of how information technology has transformed two information-driven operations at Visa USA and The Wall Street Journal. Before computerization, Visa used to store customer credit data in huge manuals that call center operators had to page through hundreds of times a day to approve purchases.

Today, with 8 billion transactions a day, it is building a global network capable of supporting the entire planet's daily affairs.

Contributing Writer Tracy Mayor takes us down memory lane in "Inventing the Enterprise," where the heavyweights behind the fundamental computing concepts of today wax philosophical on how their inventions came to light. For instance, Lotus Notes creator Ray Ozzie reveals the social motivations behind this pervasive business application: "Call it groupware or messaging or whatever. It was relationships I was after," says Ozzie.

Realizing that you may be up to your ears in millennial predictions by now, we made sure that the forward-looking stories in our package offered sound advice-not far-out musings about talking refrigerators and intergalactic corporations. In "Making Beautiful Music," Contributing Writer Bill Roberts explores the present and future states of collaboration-within the enterprise, with customers and with suppliers. These knowledge leaders from DuPont, Lands' End and others share prescient tips for helping users take full advantage of the new tools, along with advice on surviving the ensuing cultural changes.

"Companies that don't figure out how to collaborate better will be the first casualties of the new century," Roberts warns.

In "Don't Stop Thinkin' About Tomorrow," Staff Writer Meridith Levinson takes us into the world of scenario planning, tracking the adventures of a Cleveland bank as it engages its employees in a week-long workshop to reinvent corporate strategy.

And if you think the Net generation has little to do with your future plans in IT, Features Editor Meg Mitchell will tell you how today's kids-and the new media they adore-are rewriting the rules of education, interaction and working.

"Kids who have never known a world without computers, students who have never written a letter by hand, will be your employees (or your customer, or your boss)," she observes. "If you're not ready to serve them-in whatever capacity they demand-it's likely your competitor will be."

Optimistically speaking, this future virtual world will enhance the quality of life for people of all races and cultures, and it will be good for business.

Before we know it, every country will have high-speed, rich connections to the Internet, which could level the playing field for nations that are isolated and disadvantaged today due to a lack of technology or exports. There will be more jobs overall, based on the unlimited supply of information and the unlimited potential of value and services it will create. But some will inevitably lose out, unable to learn the skills necessary to survive digitally. Are you ready for 2030?

Senior Writer Polly Schneider can be reached at pschneider@cio.com.

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