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15 November 2011

The three opportunities

By Andrew Clifford

There is a vast body of unused IT work which could be a rich source for future innovation.

Over the past few decades there has been a huge amount of innovation and improvement in IT. However, there is still room for improvement, to reduce costs further, create solutions faster and meet requirements more closely. Some of this improvement will come from genuine new work. But there are opportunities to find improvements by revisiting work that has previously been discarded.

The first of these opportunities is to exploit technologies that were previously inviable because of performance problems.

We tend to think of performance as a way of improving the user experience, and of reducing cost by consolidating more work onto a smaller number of machines. However, there is another aspect of improving performance.

Through the development of IT there have been many technologies with useful characteristics that were marginalised because of performance problems. They may have been truly useful, but were "before their time" in the sense that hardware could not support them. There is now an opportunity to bring some of these technologies back into play.

The second opportunity is to exploit technologies that fall outside of current technology fashions.

There has been a great, and largely beneficial, consolidation into a small number of technology families. For many applications, there is now just the choice between the Microsoft .NET stack, and a Java-based stack, and a couple more mainstream technologies for web-based development. These are very good options, and it would be silly to adopt different technologies just for the sake of it.

However, this consolidation has left many valuable technologies behind, either because they are not so good as general-purpose tools, or because of the vagaries of commercial success. Some of these less successful approaches may be just what we need for niche requirements.

The third opportunity is to exploit the disjoint between commercial and academic IT. Most IT professionals, me included, have no background in computer science, and few of us pay much attention to what is going on in academia. There is an opportunity to bring things that are already well known academically into mainstream commercial IT.

For the most part, these are not opportunities that we need to take, or should take, and I am not suggesting that we are missing out on something fundamentally better. We should stick to well understood, conventional methods and technologies. However, there are situations where we do need to innovate, to create compelling new products or to meet unusual requirements.

In these cases, there is a temptation to create new solutions from scratch, designing with the techniques and technologies that we know. But there is a huge opportunity to innovate by using what has previously been discarded because hardware was too slow, or solutions that did not quite cut it in the consolidation of technology, or which have never made it out of academic IT. We might achieve more by looking more closely at what is already there than constantly reinventing new things.

Next: The Mythical Man-Month revisited

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