FRAMINGHAM (06/29/2000) - In two years, European companies may well be dictating the shape and future of the computer industry as utility, accessibility, mobility and user friendliness woo customers away from the "brute processing power" offered by American firms. That was one of several warnings voiced by Jerry Gregoire, former CIO at Dell Computer Corp. and PepsiCo Inc., during Monday's keynote speech at ABT Corp.'s Project Leadership Conference here.
"I'd like to believe that Michael Dell and Bill Gates experience a sleepless night or two" at the news that Findland-based Nokia Corp. will be the world's leading computer company by unit sales in 2002, Gregoire said. By that time, there will be more mobile phones connected to the Internet than PCs. The mobile phone phenomenon, he said, is only one of "a hundred or so" disruptive technologies that could bring a major shift of power" within the computer industry. "Are you ready?" he asked the audience of 600 IT project managers.
Noting that his predictions are "notoriously inaccurate," Gregoire nonetheless described other industry shifts he saw on the horizon and criticized common user practices as well.
Because of Internet-enabled price transparency, products are becoming commodities and services will quickly follow, he said. "Differences in quality are disappearing at a blistering rate," Gregoire said, and will soon be negligible. Time will be the key differentiating factor in the customer experience, he added. "The winners will be those companies that save their customers and themselves the most time."
Gregoire mercilessly lampooned the technology industry, noting that "It's difficult to conceive of a harder job" than selling software. "Imagine making your living selling broken stuff -- routinely promising features that don't exist," he said. "Only a bunch of nincompoops like us would let them get away with it."
But, he added, "There are a lot of real crummy CIOs around," and internal customers are almost always dissatisfied with IT's performance.
He also mocked the hype of consultants and industry seers who continually announce the Next Big Thing and and leave their customers holding the bag. "By the time the day of reckoning comes, they've already collected their fee and moved on," he said.
A case in point, Gregoire said, is the current movement toward ASPs, which he called "transparent, silly and embarrassing," noting that ASP-style technology has been available since the 1960s. "For all those who think this is new, I've got two words for you: service bureau," he said.
He suggested that it would be refreshing for a "solutions provider" firm to run an advertisement claiming, "We get bean counting done."
In sum, Gregoire said, "If ever an industry was ripe for disruption it's this one." But beyond the challenges posed by the Internet in general and companies like Nokia in particular, he cited "the constant ratcheting up of expectations beyond anyone's ability to deliver."
That puts unhealthy pressure on IT, he said, and among the casualties are time for contemplation and life balance. "We watch our lives fly by faster than a rental car over speed bumps," Gregoire said, yet "the digital revolution has done comparatively little to improve our lives -- unless you think having a cell phone attached to your belt is a good thing."
These times call for leadership, he said, and leadership's fundamental imperative is "maintaining a balance between the drive to achieve results and how results are achieved."
Acting ethically is a vital responsibility of every leader, Gregoire said, adding that his personal test is, "Would I be embarrassed if my Mom knew I made that decision?"
Gregoire, who recently retired from Dell, implied that he wouldn't be joining another company any time soon. "It might look like I'm not doing anything, " he said, "but at a cellular level I'm actually quite busy."