IT commoditisation? Asian threat? Crippling viruses? Speakers at IDC's European IT Forum 2004 in Paris didn't have to look far for contentious issues.
In the opening session, authors Nicholas Carr and Don Tapscott butted heads over whether competitive, economic and technological forces had turned IT from a strategic resource into a commodity.
Carr said the commoditisation trend was here to stay and that users should exploit it. His thesis is that because IT has become a pervasive infrastructure any company can instantly replicate any system, making any competitive advantage gained from implementing a new system a short-lived one.
According to Carr, suppliers have overshot users by pushing technology to the cutting edge. "Users don't see advantages in being at the cutting edge," he said. "They're resisting the upgrade cycle and searching for lower-cost innovation."
While Tapscott accepted that some IT hardware had become a commodity, he said that what was scarce was knowing how to use IT in an innovative way and gain a competitive edge by doing so. He advised companies to focus on what they did best and partner to do the rest in "business webs", taking advantage of new computing and networking systems.
Tapscott is hardly alone in believing that IT offers competitive advantage. John Schwarz, president and chief operating officer of Symantec, said utilities such as gas, water and electricity had changed little over the decades and had evolved into commodity infrastructures. "Our industry is changing every day," he said. "That's a big difference."
SAP's Leo Apotheker agreed. "Some software in the lower stacks, for instance, could become a commodity, but never in the higher stacks - there's too much intellectual power needed there."
Jean-Philippe Courtois, EMEA chief executive officer of Microsoft, said the IT industry was still in its infancy and pointed to the need for sophisticated software to make daily routines, such as meetings, still more effective.
As for the Asian threat, Symantec's Schwarz warned it was real. "The number of engineers in Asia is reaching a level where this region is rapidly gaining a knowledge edge. It could someday be very difficult for the industrialised West to compete."
Cisco senior vice-president James Richardson said Asia had a growing skills base and highly attractive cost base, with China, in particular, turning into an IT powerhouse. "We must be able to compete against this region in the future," he said.
Turning to viruses, Symantec's Schwarz said they had become nasty and were getting worse. He warned users to take pre-emptive measures or face big trouble. "A couple of years ago, it took attackers five to six months to penetrate systems through new viruses. Now the average is around six days, and in some cases down to two."
According to Schwarz, most viruses today aren't being written by schoolkids or geeks but criminals eager to steal personal data or extort money from companies, and that 40% of Fortune 500 companies suffered frequent virus attacks.
"Your brand is at stake if your servers are hijacked," Schwartz told the conference. "You need processes and tools to deal with these very serious threats."
John Blau writes for IDG News Service