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13 April 2010

Grasping the future

By Andrew Clifford

Future technology makes it more important to manage well the IT that you already have.

In these newsletters, I often preach the value of structure and discipline in IT, and the importance of managing well the IT that you already have. I am critical of what I see as a blinkered dash for growth, which overvalues project delivery and undervalues ongoing management.

It would be easy to misinterpret this as an IT Luddite position, not really understanding the opportunities of new technology.

But actually, the opposite is true. I am enthralled by the relentless pace of technological change.

A lot of technological change is subtle, gradually spreading deeper into our lives. I have been on holiday over the last week, and I have noticed three gradual technological improvements:

  • WiFi. I have been going on holiday to the same apartments for about 20 years. A few years ago, they installed a WiFi hotspot at the club house. Recently it has been extended to cover the entire estate. It is only a small extension of the technology, but a huge extension to the value. This constant extension of virtually free and unlimited connectivity is seeping deeper into our lives.
  • Memory. On long car journeys with the family, we often listen to recorded books. These used to come on tape, then CD. But now they are beginning to come pre-loaded on solid state audio devices. Digital technology is becoming cheap enough for single use hardware.
  • Display technology. Going to the cinema made me realise how many films are now in 3D. The adverts before these films are for 3D televisions and channels that will soon be launched.

These are examples of consumer-oriented technology. But consumer adoption often drives business adoption.

As one example scenario, I have been musing whether the 3D spaces from environments such as Second Life, possibly with 3D display technology, might be exploited much more widely. We may think of these technologies as limited to gaming and social interaction, but technologies such as Open Cobalt and Open Wonderland are being developed to allow this technology to be used for much broader applications. For any intensive IT use, whether it is online meetings or stock trading, there are huge benefits in getting away from the "rectangles on a screen" paradigm to something more immersive and intuitive.

When we see new technologies, or adoption of technologies deepening, there is a temptation to rush off and build new applications. But the biggest opportunity is to combine new technology with existing applications. There is no shortage of new technology; what stops us grasping the biggest opportunities is the difficulty of taking forward the data and functionality we already have.

To grasp these opportunities, we need to pay more attention to structure and discipline in IT. We need IT capabilities that are tightly contained and loosely coupled, with standard interfaces, that we can use as building blocks for tomorrow's applications. We need to keep systems well maintained so that we can more easily combine them with new technologies. We need to be better at looking after what we already have so that we can take full advantage of what is to come.

Next: Ash cloud computing

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