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Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter said it best: “I think the best technologies disappear, they fade into the background, and they're relevant when you want to use them, and they get out of the way when you don't.”
It would be fair to say that Jack knows quite a bit about how to build success with technology. Not only did he establish Twitter, he is also the founder and CEO of Square, a free mobile credit card application. Both of these organisations appear on the Fast Company's 2012 list of the world's top 50 most innovative companies.
But why would Jack suggest that the best technology will disappear? Why didn’t Jack say that the best technology is found in the social networks or the very application services that have made him so successful today? Perhaps Jack knows that the answer to these questions sits within the lessons learned from history and, in particular, the birth of the internet.
That famous eureka moment
On October 29, 1969, Charley Kline, a UCLA graduate student, sat in UCLA lab and typed the first message on the ARPANET, which was the progenitor of what was to become the global internet.
The team at UCLA were able to use their computer to log in to a different computer that sat in a lab at the Stanford Research Institute, some 400 miles away connected by a cable.
This was a massive breakthrough as it proved the theoretical feasibility that different types of computers could be made to communicate using packets rather than circuits - a major step along the path towards computer networking.
The computer scientists had developed a packet switching protocol called NCP which would allow the networking of different kinds of hardware and software. In 1983, NCP would be replaced by TCP/IP and soon after that came the birth of the modern-day internet.
The breakthrough in computer networking triggered a lot of excitement and fuelled a wide spread belief that in just a few short years incredible disruptive changes would be seen across modern society.
This new ability for different machines to talk to each over long distances gave birth to a string of bold predictions, such as an impending explosion of computing networks linking society with new artificial intelligence, even resulting in robots in the home doing the housework.
While many of the predictions of the era were just too far-fetched some would eventually prove close to the mark, but of these all were way too ambitious in their timings. While most of us in 2012 don’t travel by jetpack or have a robot to bring us our slippers, revolutionary change did eventually occur with the development of the global internet.
Now, apply the Jack Dorsey test to the innovative packet switching technology developed in previous decades, as ubiquitous as TCP/IP has become today, it has disappeared from our daily thoughts.
Even though it forms the fabric behind the connectivity of the digital generation, most of us would rarely give TCP/IP a thought when we send an email, watch a YouTube video or update our Facebook status.
TCP/IP protocols helped to deliver this page to you but you probably didn’t think about this when you started to read. The application of the Jack Dorsey test would bring us to the conclusion that TCP/IP is one of those ‘best’ technology innovations that has disappeared just the way that Jack described it should.
Is history repeating with cloud?
John McCarthy should be heralded as the founder of cloud computing. In 1961, he presented the concept of ‘utility computing’ that was one day going to change the world. Some 50 years later, his prediction is coming true.
John McCarthy’s utility computing model, today paraded under the banner of cloud computing, is now having a bigger, faster impact than TCP/IP in that it represents the converged maturity of a much broader spectrum of technologies already used by millions of people.
But just like the predecessor innovation of TCP/IP, cloud too has been surrounded by much hyperbole and bold predictions. However, in the case of cloud, the innovation has been accompanied by an army of cashed-up marketing mega-machines sending out their cloud evangelists to the four corners of the world to stir up a cloud frenzy. They all want a bigger slice of the opportunity to sell more tin, software and services.
Can we blame the suppliers? No, the cloud hype came at a time when the industry needed a boost after the GFC. Despite the hype, there is no dispute that the cluster of technological innovations behind cloud computing have already started to change the world, but not everything is going as fast or to the scale of what has been predicted.
Some may recall the early cloud predictions that the majority of businesses would not have any in-house IT at all within a few years and firms would never need to buy a server, rack or data centre again. While these predictions hold legitimacy in their underlying concepts, in many organisational settings, these predictions are not even close to realisation.
The predictions of wholesale enterprise adoption are taking much longer to realise than the early hype suggested. The same way that we are waiting to see robots in every home, some of the bold cloud predictions are taking much longer to play out.
In the enterprise space, the complexities of the obstacles in the way of wholesale cloud adoption take their toll as the years tick by, and while the technology continues to mature the demand side takes much longer to work out the how, why and when of cloud adoption. Why are things slower than predicted?
Perhaps the reason is that the hype focuses on the maturity of the technology and ignores the maturity levels of the enterprise environment. It also disregards the capacity or even the appetite, for bringing on the disruptive business change that wholesale cloud adoption initiates. In the 1969 eureka moment with computer networking, the computer scientists knew they unlocked a door that would lead to further technological advancement, but they believed that things would progress much quicker than it eventually did.
Similarly today, as the technology of cloud matures and on the surface appears to be ready for mass adoption, many cloud pundits are scratching their heads wondering why wholesale enterprise adoption remains elusive. Why are enterprises only making cloud moves with the components that sit on the fringe of the enterprise IT organisation? i.e. web sites, open data, test and development environments, point solutions and proof of concepts? Why is there very little heavy lifting by enterprises into these cloud environments?
Perhaps the hype has always been too focused on the cleverness of the technology, the carriage as it were, without enough focus on the content. Even the cleverness of the technology itself doesn’t solve the complexity of the consumption environment or the commercial hurdles needed to be overcome.
The cleverness of the technology can always be revered but needed now is the translation into tangible business value and meaningful services that can actually be implemented with the least business risk, making a significant commercial difference.
While some technologists understandably place a lot of value in the technology stack and what it can achieve, the business is trying to survive in a harsh marketplace faced with a lot of hard truths, like this one: the market only values execution in the delivery of tangible business value.
The substance of value lies in the content delivered and not in the carriage, despite the fact that the carriage makes it happen and a lot easier than was possible before. The gift is always much more valuable than its packaging.
Time for cloud to disappear
Just like what occurred with TCP/IP, cloud computing will bring much of the predicted change but over a longer period than expected. There is a point in time when cloud should begin to disappear to become part of the underlying fabric that connects the world with its data, the customers with information, the business with delivery of services and digital consumers with their content.
As it disappears, the focus needs to finally shift away from technology to services, business innovation and real business value that makes a difference – such as developing new and better ways of delivering granular and immediate information to customers no matter where they are. This is what matters most. The sooner that “cloud” disappears, the better.
Scott Stewart is research director at IT advisory firm ITNewcom and member of the CIO Executive Council.
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