Apart from "watching" great Olympic events, the past two weeks have been a time for reminiscing with my old "industry watcher" mate Jacko from Boston. Jacko spent more than 10 years watching the IT industry following his retirement from IBM and during that time he experienced it all: public offerings, growing pains, missed quarters, rolling heads and hostile takeovers. There were also stocks selling for hundreds of times earnings and there were stocks selling at one time earnings. Jacko experienced the whole jungle, so to speak.
When Jacko started his research life as an IBM watcher we had three to four year cycles for machines like 1401s and 360s. Change was taking place in slower times, until the PC and networking came along. Now the point of entry for vendors with no legacy systems to worry about allows them to get on track early and the ability, given the right "go-to-market" plan, to take off like a rocket and keep ahead of the curve. If they fail to move faster they lose any leadership roles to the next young company -- or seven or more young companies -- that come along.
"It happened to IBM and the Bunch,". Jacko commented, "but on a far longer cycle. Today in Internet time you have to be a lot more nimble than the old stalwarts".
Today it's a lot like painting the Sydney Harbour Bridge; you finish and you just have to start all over again.
Several of the "oldies" missed some great opportunities, like, PCs, minis, consulting services, the server markets and if they're not careful they'll miss the e-business and wireless markets too.
Missed them, they screwed up! Many still try to run themselves like hardware companies. And with the pressures from Wall Street, the pressures of the losses that took place, they all had the opportunities and just didn't seize them as well as they should have done.
"Today mergers are nothing more than financial companies playing with themselves," mused Jacko. "They don't create jobs, they don't create new products, they're nothing but financial manipulators often buying undervalued properties and looking for a quick buck."
Mergers often destroy; strategic partnerships build. Indeed, a maturing industry that's working together makes a lot more sense. One company no longer can do it all.
Today, of course, newcomers also have to be aware of the heavy-footed mergerosaurus which can easily step on the budding evolutionary flowers.
"How do winners do it," I asked as we watched the wonderful Cathy Freeman. "Often vendors on the winning side do so by throwing out the rule book and applying the same levels of creativity resourcefulness and adaptability that have led them to success in other arenas."
Mention a subject, any subject, and this ex IBMer and industry analyst still bursts into a presentation of epic proportions, prophesying, for example, about the next era, about technology longevity, the loss of authority at the data centre, the resulting rise of the true believers and the many industry extremes.
As an IBM stockholder, Jacko pondered also about the value of sponsorships and Lou Gerstner's floating palace tied up at Circular Quay blocking the view of Sydney Opera House. "I wonder if IBM got value for their money?" he mused.
"Is it possible for a vendor to be too successful with its PR efforts?" I asked Jacko.
"The Olympics were a great example of this with all the schmoozin' and cruisin' that went on. The luring and stroking of the so-called decision makers and influencers, the political manoeuvering that took place, the presidential-type accommodation and the groupies. But then that's what sponsorships are all about. But who else was a sponsor?" Jacko commented. "I didn't notice, was it Qantas?"
Remember the customer
Witnessing an event like the Sydney Olympics -- which seem to happen "outfront", effortlessly --, reinforces one's appreciation for the fundamental principle that transcends IT products, services and marketing. Nothing is more important than customer service and those wonderful smiling faces. Today nothing is more valuable than word-of-mouth customer relations.
Overwhelming events like the Olympics are great opportunities for change and for unfolding new competitors, new levels of strength and heaps of new friendships.
The four year Olympic cycle is along time in IT industry terms. During this period consumers won't just gobble up every gizmo that technologists can conceive. We put a lot of guessing into this business of technology futures. Much of the guessing is wildly, sometimes laughably wrong. But occasionally someone gets it right. The one thing we can always predict is that professional prognostication will remain a profitable business.
"Do we have less fun each year in the IT industry or is it my imagination?" I asked Jacko as we stood on the train after another exciting day at Homebush.
"I think it depends on the personality of the leadership of the vendors," he said. "They need to foster a sense of humour and excitement like the Sydney Olympic crowds. Humour should also be used in the darkest times. If you make a mistake you need to be honest and admit it, say sorry, we goofed. You can even make a joke out of it. It's very motivational to smile and laugh. I hope management doesn't take themselves so seriously that they forget to take time to enjoy life.
"Life used to be easy" Jacko reminisced. "I remember when this industry, and to some degree our profession, was largely defined by IBM. Companies depended so much on them that they gave the IBM account rep and his systems engineers an office space down the hallway. No, there is no obvious industry leader today, no single company that defines the future, although several would like too!"
On the one level the old dog is right. Today, there is enormous competition, there isn't one company that defines this industry. Hardware manufacturers, software providers, network providers, telcos and service companies all argue that each has the "total solution". The truth is that no single one of them does. If there is any leadership present it comes from Intel and Microsoft. And although both would like to control the industry they represent only a segment indeed a segment that is being continually challenged by new players.
We all need to try harder, be bolder, and have fun. I hope we can have this little discussion after the Athens Games -- the partying, the morning-after headaches -- and with all the same excitement and friendships. Thanks Jacko, cheers.