On-demand computing and open source were among the initiatives championed by IT suppliers in a year that has seen a flurry of activity and new strategies, says Robin Bloor.
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The IT industry rarely stands still, but there were more changes in 2003 than in previous years, with many large suppliers lining up new strategies.
Utility computing is one example. The year can be remembered as the one in which utility computing became mainstream - in supplier thinking if not in capability.
Sun Microsystems has been pushing the idea for a while and IBM had already declared its intentions in 2002, but 2003 saw suppliers commit to this "new" idea in no uncertain terms.
IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Sun, Oracle, Computer Associates and Microsoft all now have their own versions. In addition, IBM acquired ThinkDynamics and Sun purchased Centerrun to bolster their capabilities. Emphasising the potential of this direction, VMWare - which provides virtual infrastructure capabilities on Intel (or AMD) servers and desktops and hence has strong partnerships with both HP and IBM - had a year of growth.
One hardware giant missing from the list of utility computing proponents is Dell. This is hardly surprising as the firm focuses on selling PCs and servers to users buying inexpensive hardware.
However, Dell is changing too. It is still playing to its manufacturing strengths and continues to introduce products at the consumer end of the market - having moved into printers, personal digital assistants, digital jukeboxes and even LCD TVs. But, in 2003, it also moved into services - following the direction of others in the hardware market.
Dell has a productive relationship with Oracle that has been forged by a common interest. Oracle wants to outflank IBM in its database battle and its strategy is to push database economics in the direction of inexpensive servers. Thus Dell is now a natural and potentially useful partner.
Oracle for its part, introduced Oracle 10g, which was surprising in the breadth of what it included, but is also the springboard for its Grid initiative - which is Oracle's version of utility computing. Oracle's use of the word "grid" was a little confusing, to me at least, but choosing marketing words in this area is difficult if you want to separate yourself from the crowd.
Apart from Oracle's Grid, we also have Network Computing from Sun, which can legitimately claim to have embraced the concept in its long time mantra - the network is the computer. We also have "on-demand" and "autonomic computing" from IBM, "the adaptive enterprise vision" from HP and "the agile business" and "business agility" from Microsoft.
In reality, what IT users are doing is server consolidation, but IBM and HP both introduced instant provisioning of hardware this year and both seem to have got customers for the idea. It looks as if utility computing will become a reality in the coming years.
The past 12 months have also been the year for open source. SCO muddied the waters considerably by launching its news-grabbing anti-Linux lawsuit against IBM, but this does not appear to have slowed the momentum of Linux. In the spring, Novell announced a strong commitment to Linux, which included its intention to move Netware's capabilities on to the Linux platform. It then followed up in autumn by acquiring SuSE, the second largest Linux distributor after Red Hat.
From nowhere, Novell had suddenly become "the Linux company".
Governments across the world became even more interested in Linux following a landmark victory for SuSE and IBM, when they won the Munich local government contract to put Linux on 14,000 desktops. Linux is not yet a force on the desktop but it now looks like a possibility rather than an open source dream.
What may have gone unnoticed by some is that, in May, SAP backed MySQL - the most popular open source database. It is worth noting that open source may be an attractive idea, but there are only a few widely used open source products and the major ones, Linux and Apache, have proliferated with the backing of suppliers such as IBM, HP and Oracle.
SAP's decision to back MySQL may be a straw in the wind - SAP, of course, does not care too much about database revenues - but the prospect of a popular open source database will probably set nerves jangling at Oracle and IBM.
Microsoft had a bad 2003 in some ways. The most serious viruses of the year (Blaster and Sobig) were, as usual, attacks on Windows, and the damage was high. The overall IT security situation got worse in 2003 not only by virtue of clever viruses, but in escalations of the number of security breaches. Microsoft desktops and servers are the natural targets, and as IT security is a business cost, it does not play well for Microsoft.
However, Microsoft's release of Office/Windows/Exchange 2003 was a big plus for the company. It aimed to kill several birds with a single stone, and must have been the result of a good deal of planning over several years.
The problem with Office software was that it ceased to provide significant incremental business benefit some time ago. Microsoft made major changes with Office 2003, moving towards collaborative computing and document management with a twist of XML.
Collaborative computing had been a simmering sector of the software market, threatening to take off, but never quite getting off the launch pad.
"Chat" has proliferated and inveigled its way into many companies through the free AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft services. Likewise, Webex and similar on-demand collaborative services have seen extensive use for electronic meetings and presentations. However, collaborative suppliers have yet to achieve rapid growth. Microsoft has, sensibly in my view, bet on this market and provided a move to collaborative computing that may serve it well.
Microsoft also needed to give companies a reason not to switch to rival open source product Staroffice, and has done so with its increasing integration of Windows Server and Office software. It remains to be seen how successful this move will be.
Finally, I will remember 2003 as the year when Apple brought out a massively powerful PC - the Apple Mac G5 - and the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University assembled 1,100 of them to build the fourth largest supercomputer in the world - dubbed the Big Mac - for a mere £2.87m. Personally, I was amused to see Apple as a supercomputer company.
What do you think?
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Robin Bloor is chief executive of Bloor Research.