The future of IT holds much promise

Every few years, someone announces "the death of IT." True, the industry's vital signs don't look all that promising — particularly recently. Last year, IT budgets declined by 10% to 20%, depending on who you believe. Upwards of 100,000 IT jobs were lost in 2009 in the United States. And the pool of vendors is constantly shrinking, given the tsunami of bankruptcies and mergers over the past few years. (Adios, Nortel.)

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That's not all. Given the growing availability of free services (think gmail), the convergence of consumer and enterprise technology, and the emergence of low-cost outsourcing (including cloud computing), there are indications that the very discipline of "information technology" is on the wane.

So what's the end game? Will IT as we know it disappear, to be subsumed by absurdly user-friendly, off-the-shelf technology and a new generation of tech-savvy workers?

Not at all. I'll wholeheartedly agree that the discipline of IT is at what former Intel CEO Andy Grove likes to call a "strategic inflection point" — there are significant changes that will have a long-lasting impact on the industry. Here are a few:

* The bifurcation of IT. Huge swaths of formerly strategic areas (think WAN routing and user help desks) have become commoditized. Why manage your routers or your users when a provider can do it more affordably and often more effectively?

Yet many areas of technology are increasingly strategic — unified communications, for instance, or virtualization. And more broadly, the ability of technology to transform companies or generate a sustainable strategic advantage has never been greater. Don't believe me? Look at JetBlue, which is succeeding in a mature, competitive environment due primarily to effective use of both back office and user-facing technology. The bottom line: At the same time that some areas of IT are commoditizing, others are becoming strategically critical.

* The real-time data-analytics challenges posed by emerging technologies such as mobility, UC and sensor networks. About five years ago, I predicted that real-time battlefield data from sensor networks and messaging would present "information overload" challenges to the US military. Last week, I read about the challenges the military's facing in — you guessed it — analyzing and processing the vast flood of real-time data (including from drone devices). Enterprises? Watch for this challenge to show up on your doorstep next. Now that we've instrumented and networked every device imaginable, the next big challenge is figuring out how to make sense of it all.

* The impact of even more futuristic technologies, such as memristors, nanowires and organic LEDS. (See "Transformative Technologies for the 21st Century.) As I noted previously, memristors erase the distinction between storage and processing technologies, and thereby hold the potential for revolutionizing both. OLEDs can be printed on paper — revolutionizing display technologies. And nanowires can turn any material into an embedded intelligent network.

The bottom line? Yes, IT is about to make some major shifts. Technical specialties and job descriptions will change. But technology and technologists will continue to matter.

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