IT Matters

David Kirkpatrick critiques the HBR article which asks “Does IT Matter?” by Nicholas Carr.

One of the article’s most glaring flaws is its complete disregard for the centrality of software. Any human knowledge or information can be mediated and managed by software. Charles Fitzgerald, Microsoft’s general manager for platform strategy, says that Carr doesn’t put enough emphasis on this, the “I” in IT. “We have definitely hit an inflection point where suddenly the least expensive technologies are the most powerful ones–like Intel’s microprocessors,” Fitzgerald says. “But the source of competitive advantage in business is what you do with the information that technology gives you access to. How do you apply that to some particular business problem?” To say IT doesn’t matter is tantamount to saying that companies have enough information about their operations, customers, and employees. I have never heard a company make such a claim.

Who cares about the hardware? Not, in general, the experts I contacted about Carr’s article. “We never actually needed IT–we only need its functions. Good technology should be as invisible and as cheap as possible,” says Joel Kurtzman, a top business strategist at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Paul Strassman, who has spent 42 years as a CIO–at General Foods, Xerox, the Pentagon, and most recently NASA–was more emphatic. “The hardware–the stuff everybody’s fascinated with–isn’t worth a damn,” he says. “It’s just disposable. Information technology today is a knowledge-capital issue. It’s basically a huge amount of labor and software.” Strassman was so distressed by Carr’s article that he sent HBR a six-page critique. Says he: “Look at the business powers–most of all Wal-Mart, but also companies like Pfizer or FedEx. They’re all waging information warfare.” Rob Carter, CIO of FedEx, declared himself “stunned” that anyone could think tech didn’t matter. “Everything strategic in the company has IT inputs into it,” he says. “I always annoy my team by telling them, ‘It’s the software, stupid.’ ”

Steve Jobs’ Innovations

Stewart Alsop lists the contributions amde by Steve Jobs: Apple II, Macintosh, Laser printers, Pixar, Industrial design, OS X, iLife, iPod, along with the iTunes Music Store. Says Alsop: “[Apple’s] financial results have been mediocre, and some people wonder whether it can keep moving ahead. Based on what I’ve seen Jobs do over the past 20 years, I’d have to say that the company will not only keep moving forward itself but also keep pushing the entire industry along.”

Programmable Web

Guardian writes about the third era – after static web pages and dynamic web pages.

The programmable web is different for two main reasons. First, instead of going to look at a web page, you can get a computer to extract the information for you. Second, you don’t have to view that information in a browser: you could use it in a different application, or on a different device, such as a mobile phone. When websites make information available in this way, they are called web services.

The important point is that you didn’t need to go to the web to get useful information from a website: the web is no longer just about “eyeballs,” it is also about computers talking directly to computers on your behalf. The corollary is that someone has to specify how all these applications talk to one another, and provide an applications programming interface (API). This tells you how to frame a request in order to get the right response.

Support for Open-Source

News.com writes about Indian President Abdul Kalam’s support for open-source software. Said Kalam in a speech recently: “The most unfortunate thing is that India still seems to believe in proprietary solutions. Further spread of IT which is influencing the daily life of individuals would have a devastating effect on the lives of society due to any small shift in the business practice involving these proprietory solutions. It is precisely for these reasons open source software need to be built which would be cost effective for the entire society. In India, open source code software will have to come and stay in a big way for the benefit of our billion people.”

In a related development (News.com), the Munich government is moving 14,000 computers from Windows to Linux, and from MS-Office to OpenOffice.

TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Small Worlds

The Memex is about connecting people, ideas and information. In a way, it creates a small world out of the unstructured content that is out there on the Web. Writes Duncan Watts is his book Small Worlds:

The small-world phenomenon formalises the anecdotal notion that you are only ever six degrees of separation away from anybody else on the planet. Almost everyone is familiar with the sensation of running into a complete stranger at a party or in some public arena and, after a short conversation, discovering that they know somebody unexpected in common. Well, its a small world, they exclaim. The small-world phenomenon is a generalised version of this experience, the claim that even when people do not have a friend in common, they are separated by only a short chain of intermediaries.

Adds Mark Buchanan in his book Nexus:

These small-world networks work magic. From a conceptual point of view, they reveal how it is possible to wire up a social world so as to get only six degrees of separation, while still permitting the richly clustered and intertwined social groups and communities that we see in the real world. Even a tiny fraction of weak links long-distance bridges within the social world has an immense influence on the number of degrees of separationThe long-distance social short-cuts that make the world small are mostly invisible in our ordinary social networks.

So, can this social networks truth be extended to ideas and memes using the Memex?

What the Memex does is create a small-world out of the content that is out there. So, in theory, a few clicks should be all that should be required to take us from one page to another. The invisible short-cuts are created by bloggers. Just as people have some weak ties which shorten the distance in the social world, blogs, because they represent peoples interests, also make connections through some weak ties to other blogs.

So, while my blog may cover mostly about new technologies and ideas relevant to emerging markets like India, I also write about a few other topics that are of interest to me like Memex or Entrepreneurship, for example. These are the weak ties that connect me to other people who would have probably been outside the gamut of the reading I would have done in the normal course of events. What the Memex does is make these weak ties visible.

The Memex makes it possible connect us to not just information and ideas, but ultimately to people. In the year-long existence of my blog, I have made many interactions with people I would probably have never interacted with otherwise. Blogging means putting in public a part of ones persona and brain. The Memex then makes the connections, making possible short-cuts through weak links to people (and memes) whom otherwise one could not have possibly not been aware of. The Memex makes the world smaller and more connected.

This is important because in a world of plentiful information, we need a refinery to convert the raw, unstructured content ores into the gold of Knowledge and Insight. This is ultimately the challenge and hidden promise of the Memex.

Next Week: Constructing the Memex (continued)

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