How does new technology evolve?

Where do IT innovations come from? For the past few decades, many of them have come out of IBM, which last year registered more...

Where do IT innovations come from? For the past few decades, many of them have come out of IBM, which last year registered more than 2,000 patents.

Tony Temple is head of several IBM development laboratories and he divides his time between Warwick and Austin in Texas. When asked what challenges his team is facing, the conversation inevitably turns to the Internet.

"When the Web was simply delivering information to users it was innocuous and users didn't demand too much from it," says Temple.

"But as e-business has matured, it is now commonplace for users to carry out transactions online. Companies that have an 'e' presence must deliver at a standard that was previously never expected of them.

"Seamless dovetailing of front-end interfaces to the back-end services, 24 hours a day, seven days a week availability so companies are able to do business across all time zones - all this has been said before but how many organisations are really delivering to this criteria? Amazon has set the height of the bar and everyone else is expected to offer the same quality of service."

One shift that Temple has noticed is that IT is more than ever prone to the demands of the user.

"Because IT has a direct route to the customer through the Web, we have to react to what the user wants. More than ever it is the user that decides what is next in the evolution of technology," he says.

This, says Temple, is demonstrated in the explosion of devices that we have seen appear on the market. "For many companies they have no choice but to adopt mobile devices and handsets," he says.

"As soon as a competitor has provided support for a device, you must follow suite or get out of the market. For example, think of the airline industry - one carrier started to provide onboard phones and now all the major airlines provide the service.

"Forces like this drive the agenda - it is very difficult to predict exactly. How, for example, will the helpdesk adjust to support the growing number of mobile users?" asks Temple.

He says the delivery of mobile computing depends on innovation and that at the centre of this innovation lies Extensible Markup Language (XML). This is because the secret to publishing data to all these different devices is to be able to write it once but then manipulate the data to fitall the different types of device. XML defines the intent of the code not the presentation.

But where does this innovation and new ideas come from?

"There is an established community of innovators and we meet at forums and summits that are held throughout the year," says Temple. "It is also a case of keeping your eyes open and looking at trends and opportunities. I often visit Tokyo where the culture is very high-tech - you get plenty of ideas just cruising round the streets.

"I also look at other industries and see what they are doing. The automobile industry is of particular relevance - the car has changed enormously, but not on the surface. All the complexity is under the bonnet, but for the driver things are pretty much the same, if not simpler."

But, Temple points out, any IT innovation has to have a commercial use. The adoption model, he says, normally follows thus:

"First a concept or prototype is introduced to the IT guys, those who enjoy mastering the complexity - this gives it a limited audience but one that allows extra investment.

"We then take it to the public who we split into different categories, such as techno-followers and technophobes - it is a long process before a new technology becomes commonplace."

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