IT innovation might not be your normal choice of polite dinner conversation but this wasn't a normal dinner. This was a small private dining room at a fashionable restaurant. Sun Microsystems' Charles Andrews, director of product and technology solutions, and Greg Stroud, vice-president of the UK global sales operation, had invited a handful of guests including Richard Holway of analyst group Ovum to think out loud around the dinner table.
If we think the IT industry is in recession now, then wait until next year, because Ovum's Holway believes it will become worse in 2003. There was a kind of inevitability about this, he said. After all, IT has been growing at four times the rate of gross domestic product (GDP), but on Holway's forecasts we need to prepare ourselves for modest annual sector growth of around 2.5% in future.
This is not good news for those of us working in the industry. Business failures are up by 26%, and in some sectors average salaries are dropping by up to 15%.
But the subject under discussion wasn't so much the impact of recession but the apparent slowdown in innovation. My own view is that the IT industry made a series of large and rapid evolutionary steps with in a relatively short time and these represent the foundations of an infrastructure that we can't easily move away from. The Windows operating system, like GSM, is one example of the "cabling" that holds our society together.
The future, I believe, is a series of small conceptual changes that will have large evolutionary results. An example of this could be the development of grid computing, which builds upon, rather than replaces, the environment that surrounds us today through the introduction of processor sharing and Web services.
Sun's Greg Stroud agreed that technology has to be more invisible and the company is still committed to the idea of network computing, where processing is moved away from the client. This is in sharp contrast to the Microsoft view of the world with its emphasis on putting more power on the desktop.
I don't think Stroud is wrong, but I don't think he's entirely right either. My argument is that innovation may be driven by consumer demand. As devices like the BlackBerry or the iPaq become increasingly functional and connected, then the fatness or thinness of the client will be a functional compromise between, say, a mobile phone with an on-board camera and a PDA with an on-board digital camera, Bluetooth, a GPRS phone, pocket Word and so on.
Companies such as Sun or Microsoft can only innovate within the space they have created for themselves, while expanding that space over time. When it comes to staying ahead of the curve, any technology company has to know where it sits on that curve, fully understanding its technological and commercial position within the greater scheme of things.
With the industry under a dark cloud of recession, suppliers may see innovation as an expensive luxury.
What's your view?
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Zentelligence Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.
This was first published in December 2002