Converging Future

Picture the future: Microprocessors in your warehouse that tell your suppliers stocks are low; microprocessors in your customers' homes that tell you they need more of what you sell. Is ubiquitous computing a vision of Big Brother, or is it something more benign, like the voice-activated computer on the Starship Enterprise?

Whatever you believe, the scientists working on technology -- and the futurists who try to predict the next big thing -- all say it's coming, perhaps as soon as in the next five years. As processors get smaller and more powerful, and as networks become faster, more reliable, and more mobile, the prospect of a seamless Web or "skin" of data streaming from many points is not far off into the first decade of the new millennium. And it will change how your company does business, and how your employees work.

What will CTOs and IT managers need to know to stay on top of the changes?

Should you be worrying about bandwidth, mobile technology, or Web-based software to better interface with customers?

"You need it all," says Tom Malone, a professor of information systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and co-chair of MIT's Inventing Organizations of the 21st Century initiative. "You've got to keep up with the best there is and the leading edge of what's available every year, depending on what your role is in your company."

On the front lines of future research & development, Roy Want, a Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) manager for imbedded systems, agrees.

"In the world around us, I don't see that there's any way around heterogeneity," Want says. That means IT managers "need to be real technologists and be interested enough to track all these technologies, and have their ear to the ground."

One key technology to keep an eye on: micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS), which are silicon structures that act as sensors to detect heat, cold, speed, etc., Want explains. Xerox PARC is working on something it calls "smart matter," using a large number of MEMS to create a meshed, sensitive surface. A MEMS system in a coffee cup could track the coffee's temperature, how much sugar and milk there is in it, and over time, accumulate data about how much sugar and fat you drink with your morning cup o' Joe.

Managing the Masses

One reason IT managers need to stay on top of all these developments is because many of these technologies, including data networks, voice-activated technology, MEMS, and video will come together -- and the IT manager's role will be to oversee a unified network. As a result, IT managers will need to broaden their skill sets.

"It could have been a year ago that an IT manager was responsible for just the phone system or just the video endpoints," says Raju Rishi, director of IP solutions at Lucent Technologies. "With the convergence, I'm needing -- if I want to do my job effectively -- to understand voice, understand video, do multivendor managing."

If staying on top of the technology you already have under your belt seems daunting, help is also on the way. Some of the new technology will allow you to manage systems better by automatically detecting problems.

"We're going to have better tools for diagnostics," Rishi says.

Imagine a telecommunications system, for example, that routinely goes through a series of diagnostic tests, detecting small flaws early on, and automatically contacts a provider or service contractor to report problems.

"That kind of thing is going to make the life of an IT manager a lot easier," Rishi adds.

The "self-healing" system is also integral to the vision at IBM Corp., says Ambuj Goyal, vice president of computer science for IBM research. Goyal believes the future lies in large-scale flexible systems that are "simple, many, and self-healing," or SMASH. He sees these systems as power plants that act as the engine of future computing, and that fix themselves.

Intel is also working from that vision, says Richard Dracott, marketing director for Intel's Architecture Business Group. He believes multiple servers or server "farms" will run systems, and the redundancy will add protection. So you might have 20 servers running a Web site.

"People are going to move from thinking about server availability to servers availability," Dracott says.

Corporate Walls Disappear

Another change that will make the life of an IT manager easier, but that will also pose new IS management challenges, is the mobile, virtual workplace. It is certainly not a new concept, but futurists and scientists say the next generation of technology will make distance much less important.

MIT's Malone calls it an "e-lance" economy, where people from different parts of the globe can come together for a day, a week, or a month to work on a single project, and then disband. Imagine the expanded recruiting possibilities if you can hire people from anywhere -- and work with them seamlessly.

"In a certain sense, I think that these new technologies are reducing the constraints on how we organize work," Malone says.

Because of this change, IBM's Goyal says it is crucial for technology to become more utilitarian, or businesses will run up against a serious labor shortage that will hinder growth.

"We'll run out of people to run these systems," Goyal says, adding that for industry to expand, the new systems will need to serve people with low-tech skills in a simple way. "If it doesn't become simpler, I don't see this panacea of ubiquitous computing that people are talking about."

This will also be true for business-to-business transactions.

"The eventual panacea is to create virtual 'valuenets,' " Goyal says. By that, he means that businesses must be enabled to think only in business terms, without worrying about the technology. "The implementation from there is as easy as writing down a business plan."

CTOs and IT managers will also need to devise strategies to keep their own operations -- as well as customers' and suppliers'-- in the loop, even if any party is using outdated technology.

"IT managers need to understand interoperability is going to be an important thrust for the future, and make sure [that] the old works for the new," Lucent's Rishi says.

Too Much Information

Finally, what about the Big Brother scenario? Will your customer really want you to know everything that's in their refrigerator? Is your CEO going to be skittish about automatically giving suppliers or potential competitors information about your company's inventory, supply and demand, and potential revenue stream?

"Yes" to all of the above, say the futurists. In the near future, privacy will be an even bigger issue than it is now, and as an IT manager, safeguarding secure systems will continue to be one of your top concerns. But the challenges may become more subtle, so when you talk to your CEO about the benefits of new technology in streamlining business and customizing consumer profiles, make sure that you have examined the potential downside.

Is the network you are setting up to deliver real-time inventory information to outside sources something your competition might be able to get its hands on?

Could it drive up costs unless you put in some kind of automatic system for multiple bids?

Companies may become less guarded about the information they share, Intel's Dracott says.

"I think you're going to see greater data flow, but the competitive advantage is going to be how you're going to use that knowledge flow," Dracott says.

That may also be true for individual consumers. While futurists agree that privacy will continue to be a huge concern, some predicted that consumers may be willing to accept more intrusions down the road as the cost of convenience.

Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in virtual reality, lead scientist for the National Tele-Immersion Initiative in New York, and an innovative thinker about the future, says we're already getting a glimpse of some of the reasons people may be more comfortable with those intrusions. The Big Brother scenario has government or corporate entities looking into our most intimate spaces: our homes. That's the nightmarish version of ubiquitous computing: as a kind of ultimate spy.

But in reality, the ability to intrude cuts two ways, as Internet users are already learning. Consumers are gaining more information about government and corporations, which makes them seem less intimidating.

"At the same time Big Brother is watching you, you can watch Big Brother more effectively," Lanier says. "[Big Brother] can't keep secrets from us."

In the end, Lanier says consumers may decide that the information we consider private now -- about our health, our relationships, and our habits -- is just too dull to worry about. MIT's Malone agrees.

"Many kinds of privacy that we worry about [now] may be things we just don't worry about in the future," Malone says.

So while ubiquity, mobility, and privacy issues come to the forefront, IT professionals should expect to have their plates overflowing with the management and implementation issues created by the next millennium's innovations.

Andersen Tests Our Ubiquitous Future

Scientists at Andersen Consulting's research and development lab say they've seen the future of computing -- and it's everywhere. They predict that in just three to six years, networked computers will end up in your suit jacket, your medicine cabinet, and your pocketbook.

To capitalize on opportunities emerging in this ubiquitous computing environment, businesses and their IT professionals will have to develop creative ways to leverage technology to interact and to forge closer relationships with customers, says Anatole Gershman, the head of Andersen's Northbrook lab.

In the past, a central question for businesses was "How do I reach customers?" explains Andersen Consulting researcher Andrew Fano. "[With the proliferation of network computing devices], the access problem has gone away. The real question is that now that I have access, how do I pick my spots and what do I say to [customers]?"

The scientists point to their prototype of an online, interactive medicine cabinet as an example of one means for developing and managing a closer relationship with customers through existing technology. Equipped with a networked PC, sensors, and a face-recognition system, the otherwise standard cabinet can tell who is taking medication out, and through a Web connection to a pharmacy and a built-in browser, it can provide up-to-the-minute data for doctors and pharmacies.

"We are starting to build eyes and ears into the computers [to] sense what is going on around us," Gershman says.

Technology like this is closing the gap between the time individuals intend to purchase and when they do the transaction. Savvy businesses will use IT to help customers move from intention to action, researchers note.

"On the one hand, consumers will have this tremendous power to arbitrate, but the vendors have more power to reach customers and track individual preferences and desires," Gershman says.

Technologies to Watch

Here are some of the technologies in the pipeline at Xerox, Lucent, IBM, and Intel that could change the way your company serves customers, and the way you work.

From Lucent: IP Exchange integrates voice, video, and data capability into a single system, run over a common network; a Unified Messenger that integrates voice mail, e-mail, and fax mail into a common graphic device.

From IBM: A wearable PC -- IBM is piloting the concept now. The goal is to create a computer the size of a walkman that has all the functions of a Pentium notebook. The unit clips onto a belt or shirt pocket, and you wear the display around your head.

From Intel: The next generation of processors -- the Willamette, coming soon, is a 32-bit processor architecture for PCs, workstations and servers, and a high-end 64-bit processor called Itanium is also in the works, for use in higher-end servers and workstations.

From Xerox: A photocopier that uses a micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) to replace motors, drums, and wheels. Paper would move through the system on air from air jets. MEMS would turn the jets on and off, and also track paper flow.

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