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Pervasive or Utilitarian Computing?

  • June 12 2003, 1:00am EDT

I just can’t do it. There is a stack of folders above my desk with ideas for this column collecting dust. For months now, I have wanted to write about advances in wearable computing, Smart Spaces and the Wi-Fi wave. But, I just can’t. What’s preventing me is not their potential, which makes me feel like a kid in a candy store, but their current relevance to Corporate America, right here, right now.

The "new economy," which placed a lower case "e" in front of the word "business" and proclaimed to the corporations of the world that business itself had fundamentally changed, has stumbled in a big way. The realities of business are back: revenue is good, risks need to be carefully managed and eventually, hopefully sooner-than-later, profits need to appear. These realities have many CEOs looking at their investments in IT and wondering where the ROI is or when, if ever, it can be achieved.

One of the outcomes of this reality is the appearance of a utility model for managing IT resources. The idea behind this model is to structure information technology as an infrastructure service similar to the electricity, water and natural gas in your home. As a utility, data and information technology services would be always and ubiquitously available. You simply turn on the "IT faucet" and out comes the information you need. The longer your IT faucet is on and the more that comes out of it, the more you have to pay.

As a cost structure, which may be deep down all that this really is, utility computing can be compelling. This pay-for-what-you-use costing model seems more equitable than the current de facto standard of having the first project to break new ground pay for all the associated infrastructure costs of whatever technology is being implemented. IT departments in today’s enterprises often behave as members of congress. When a business unit comes in with a new IT project request, this IT "bill" will ultimately get a series of addendums and riders attached to it. A department’s request to deploy an application to their mobile sales force, for example, can easily double in cost once the related firewall, network, security monitoring, OS upgrades and/or hardware upgrades get attached to the original request.

As a costing model, utility computing warrants investigation, but what about its potential of innovation? In the current, "Your Idea – You Pay" model, departments may be unfairly footing a large infrastructure bill, but if they believe in their vision enough they can often find the means to fund the project. I don’t know about you, but I don’t typically think of utilities as being synonymous with innovation.

Herein, lies my struggle. Does a utility model for IT stifle innovation? While it shouldn’t, the potential is there. It depends on where the utility model is applied. In any enterprise, only a scant number of processes provide a real competitive advantage. These processes have been termed "asset processes" with the remaining processes being referred to as "liability processes."

The more I looked, the more I realized that those asset processes that have the potential for providing real competitive advantage are not, and should not, be moved under the utility model. Yes, the need to develop a compelling business case, accurately estimate costs and risks and identify and measure ROI is much stronger than the past few years. However, corporations still recognize the need to innovate. They are just doing so in a more methodical manner than over the past few years.

Is pervasive computing alive and well? Can it be a component of an asset process? Absolutely. If you’re struggling for an example, take a look at the U.S. military. Many examples of pervasive computing are currently being field tested in Iraq. U.S. soldiers are wearing computers with mobile imaging and messaging systems. There is real-time data exchange occurring with units in the field, artillery, aircraft and their command centers. And, the command centers themselves are no longer a cigar smoke-filled room with generals pushing toy soldiers across a felt table, but high-tech command and control centers filled with state-of-the-art communication and visualization systems. For the U.S. military, their pervasive use of computing is in itself one of its core competencies. This is an asset process that helps the U.S. military maintain their competitive advantage.

Compared to the U.S. military, Corporate America is not nearly as pervasive in its use of technology; this fact does not bother me in the least. One of the lessons learned from the past few years is IT needs to be a more efficient manager of both the business benefits and risks associated with any IT investment. Because pervasive computing technologies typically fall in the emerging technologies realm, the risks are higher and the benefits less clear.

For many corporations this means progress is moving much slower than it did previously. For example, are all enterprises jumping on the wireless wave? While the answer is a collective "No, not quite yet," some companies have made the leap. Experiments in wireless are occurring in others, proof of concepts are being initiated and position statements are being formulated.

The same holds true for other pervasive computing technologies. While global PDA sales have been falling for more than a year, companies are by no means abandoning them. Some are waiting for the convergence of Wi-Fi with PDAs or evaluating the effectiveness and usability of PDAs compared to the new Tablet PCs.

In short, experimentation and innovation are by no means over. Even adopting a utility model does not mean the innovations or investments in emerging technologies for a company’s asset processes are over. They are just occurring in a more methodical and cautious way than before.

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