Net Prophet: What It All Means

SAN MATEO (04/10/2000) - If you have to cram yourself into a tiny prop plane for a business trip to a technology conference, there are a lot worse places to go than Palm Springs, California. In March, with temperatures around 90 degrees, I attended the Open Systems Advisor's Crossroads conference, touted as "the intersection of business and technology." It's an oasis in the desert for IT executives to uncover new products and technologies and to meet with their peers (playing golf in a California paradise is just a bonus).

I can't do the conference justice in a column. For the whole story, you'll have to attend yourself. But I can tell you about four speakers, people immersed in the Internet revolution, whose ideas are worth your time. Four men who talked about creation, delivery, the customer, and what it all means.

With Ken Ouichi, a vice president at Solectron Corp., you get the impression that still waters run deep. His experience in contract manufacturing leads him to envision a future of highly interconnected companies -- a virtual value chain. Companies of the future won't be monolithic entities, but a highly coordinated collection of free agents, contractors, and service providers. He believes these little fish will eat the swimming sharks alive. According to Ken, the enterprise of the future is a school of piranhas -- hence the reason why Solectron is so involved in the development of e-commerce standards and RosettaNet. It seems to me the rise of telecommuting tools, outsourcing, and digital markets will lead to a key competitive advantage: collaboration.

Companies that by virtue of technology and culture collaborate better than their peers will be successful.

Colum Joyce is a funny, outspoken Irishman (I liked him immediately). This "anti-social rocket scientist" -- his words -- from transportation giant DHL thinks the death of the physical world has been greatly exaggerated. He contends that logistics mastery, like last-mile delivery, will be critical for e-businesses success. E-commerce, customization, and personalization all require significant real-world know-how: Getting a package delivered in Italy or Kazakhstan will be about more than technology. I wonder if this means e-business drivers are going to look more like COOs in the coming years?

Nigel Stokes puts on a good show (you can picture him doing a stand-up or magic act). That's good, because he's touting the power of the experience economy. As CEO of Datamirror, Stokes has a lot to be happy about, because his company walked away with top honors at Crossroads for the system it built for GMAC.

Customer experience will be everything, he contends, and you'd better deliver fun as well as goods. I'm a believer in the experience economy, but I fear its ideas may run amok and a world of Planet Hollywood meets the Hard Rock Cafe -- both deeply troubled "experience" businesses -- will result. But Nigel's enthusiasm is infectious.

Cliff Stoll is a physics professor, a catcher of international spies, and the author of three books -- and clearly needs no coffee in the morning. Cliff is profoundly skeptical of what we're doing with our technology.

Cliff's mind and body both race around topics and the room as he covers e-commerce to education. Cliff essentially asks, "Are we creating a world with our technology that we even want to live in?" Think about the last time you got a cell phone call at an awkward moment before you answer that. Cliff's talk stirs audience passions; he's brushed a nerve. I agree with him on many points, but I also remain optimistic; I have to believe we're stumbling through the revolution at least with good intentions.

Talking about the creation of value, the delivery of goods, the customers' experience, and what it all means, one thing is clear: The revolution is far from over. At least we have signposts to the future such as Crossroads.

My flight back was delayed. When it finally landed, we all sprinted for connecting flights. As I started my trek across the terminal, I noticed Cliff -- who caught the same flight I did -- racing to find a phone to call his wife.

He doesn't carry a cell phone. Does this support or undermine his argument?

I'll ponder it later; I've got a plane to catch.

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