Disconnecting IT from reality

In the past 60 days, I have been knees-under-the-table with hundreds of IT leaders and scratch-and-sniff close to scores of vendor CEOs. In addition, I've attended more than my share of IT events. One of them, Comdex, brought together the ideas that have been swirling about me for the past two months, with frightening clarity.

We stand at a moment unprecedented in the evolution of IT. I use the word unprecedented because at no previous time in history has technology possessed more promise or its value been so seriously doubted. The doubts could overwhelm the promise, however, since two vast disconnects imperil our possibilities.

Disconnect No. 1: Despite being anointed by the mainstream media, Bill Gates, Windows and Microsoft Corp. aren't the future of our industry.

On Nov. 16, some 7,000 IT leaders streamed into the Aladdin Theatre in Las Vegas to hear what Gates had to say in his Comdex keynote speech. Yet barely half of the audience members were able to remain conscious through what may well have been the worst piece of oratory ever inflicted upon the technology industry. (In my row, half the people were asleep.) It wasn't just a matter of Gates' skills as a speaker, but also of the ideas he was presenting.

Still, the mainstream press equates Microsoft with the future of our industry. For example, Steven Levy and the editors at Newsweek -- known more for color-by-numbers linear thinking than strategic insight -- recently devoted a cover story to Gates in which he talked about the future of computers. In doing so, they did both journalism and IT a disservice.

Even a modest bit of reporting would have revealed that most of the US$6 billion that Microsoft is spending on R&D is focused on protecting existing product lines rather than on creating new franchises. Microsoft's strategic weakness is its repeatedly demonstrated inability to generate sustainable businesses outside its core competence of operating systems.

Disconnect No. 2: People believe Scott McNealy, but they scoff at their local Sun Microsystems Inc. sales reps.

Thirteen hours after Gates' Comdex speech, McNealy gave his. What followed was a brilliant, no-props-required tour de force explanation of where the industry has been and where we are going.

Later, the 200-plus C-level attendees at the Comdex CIO Boot Camp were asked whether they more admired the thinking of Microsoft's chief software architect or Sun's CEO. The answer was unanimous for Sun's boss.

Herein lies the disconnect. McNealy and his senior team are spooky smart and have thought hard and long about how our industry works. The top of the house at Sun has architected a plausible, affordable and practical alternative path to the Microsoft hegemony.

Unfortunately, this message isn't the one being delivered by the Sun sales force, which is perceived by most IT leaders as being little more than coin-operated box sellers. Sun's sales force is the least influential and respected of all the major vendors.

Prior to pulling out the order form, Sun salespeople need to channel the powerful ideas of their leader and reconnect themselves to the marketplace. They need to articulate what McNealy's big ideas mean for workaday IT leaders.

If Microsoft can jettison its addiction to and fetish with Windows and if Sun can escape the parochialism of its sales force, we might see a tech boom that makes the dot-com era pale in comparison. If not, doubts about IT's value will continue to grow, to the detriment of us all.

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