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Sliding Around the Curve

Has the downturn fatally affected the IT industry's ability to innovate? Have we seen the last disruptive technology?

It might not be your normal choice of polite dinner conversation but this wasn’t a normal dinner. This was a small private dining room at Mossiman’s in Belgravia and Sun Microsystems’s Charles Andrews, Director of Product and Technology Solutions and Greg Stroud, Vice President of the UK Global Sales Operation had invited a handful of guests and Richard Holway of Ovum to think out-loud around the dinner table.

If we think the IT industry is in recession now, then wait until next year, because Ovum’s Holway believes it will become worse in 2003. There was a kind of inevitability about this he said, after all, IT has been growing at 4*GDP and by 2050, it would equal the domestic product and so we need to prepare ourselves for modest annual sector growth of around 2 ½ % in future.

This is not good news for those of us working in the industry. Business failures are up by 26% and average salaries are dropping by as much as 15%. In fact, said Holway and with a large pool of people now looking for jobs, many companies might actually reduce their workforce at considerable discount.

But the subject under discussion wasn’t so much the impact of recession but the apparent slowdown in innovation. My own view is that the IT industry made a series of large and rapid evolutionary steps with in a relatively short timeframe and these represent the foundations of an infrastructure that we can’t easily move away from, the Windows Operating System being one example of the ‘cabling’ that like GSM holds our society together. The future, I believe, is a series of small conceptual changes which have large evolutionary results and an example of this could be the development of both Grid and Peer to Peer (P2P) computing, which builds upon, rather than replaces the environment that surrounds us today through the introduction of processor sharing and Web Services.

Sun’s Greg Stroud agreed that technology has to be more invisible and the company is still committed to the idea of Network Computing, moving the complexity away from the client in sharp contrast with the Microsoft view of the world.

I don’t think Stroud is wrong but I don’t think he’s entirely right either. My own argument is that innovation may be driven or in fact demanded by the consumer. As device types, like the Blackberry or the iPaq, become increasingly functional and connected, then the fatness or thinness of the client will be a functional compromise between, say a mobile phone with an on-board camera and a PDA with an on-board digital camera, Bluetooth, a GPRS phone, and pocket Word and so on.

Companies such as Sun or indeed, Microsoft, can only innovate within a space of their own making and inside a building which grow constantly upwards and outwards over time. When it comes to “Staying ahead of the curve”, any technology company has know where it sits on that curve and with the industry under a dark cloud of recession, innovation may seem an expensive luxury and the best Christmas gift has to be a crystal ball.

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