Customers in control

Tony Scott has been coming to Comdex for 15 years, although as the chief technology officer at General Motors he could clearly delegate the task. He still makes the annual trek to Las Vegas because the legendary trade show, even on its deathbed, gives him “a snapshot of what’s really being adopted” by other technology buyers.

This year he noticed not only the waning fortunes of Comdex and the dearth of significant IT vendors on the show floor, but also a product emphasis on “wireless everywhere, security everywhere”. GM has long been an early mover in new technologies, Scott noted, from digital identity to Web services and wireless.

“The one thing I really lose sleep over is security, thinking about the possibility of a Day Zero event — a unique worm or virus with a damaging payload,” the CTO said. “I’m talking to various companies about how to detect those anomalous events.”

Jeff Campbell, CIO at Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Corp, made the trip from Fort Worth, Texas, as a first-time attendee and speaker on one of the conference panels. He came into the top technology job only 13 months ago from the business side of the $US9.4 billion railroad. BNSF moves 25 per cent of the nation’s rail freight across 28 states and two Canadian provinces (including enough grain to supply 900 million people with bread for a year) and considers itself an industry leader in Web-enabling a variety of customer transactions.

Campbell’s focus at Comdex also centred on wireless and security products. All the most promising emerging technologies that will have an impact on the railroad’s future are related to networking or wireless: GPS, broadband and wide-area wireless networks, RFID tagging and VoIP.

But beyond the momentum behind an unmistakable “mobility with security” trend, both men also noted the dramatically shifting equilibrium of power in the computer industry. Vendors are no longer calling the shots or even controlling the direction on technology. For the first time, customers and consumers are in control of where technology is going. “I’m seeing a lot less of the technology vendors pushing this or that. It’s more the voice of the customer now,” Scott said.

“It’s a buyer’s market,” Campbell said, adding that the most compelling trends are being driven by the demand for ever-more-mobile data access, the growth of broadband and increasingly smarter phones converging with handheld devices.“The challenge of the CIO in the future is to handle this proliferation of mobility and to ensure the security of the enterprise.”

The power shift from vendors to customers is undeniable. This is the time to sit with your key vendors and not just ask for changes in their products. Demand them. You’re in the driver’s seat, so drive.