Six Degrees of Electrical Grids

Reading this introduction about the electricity bloackout in parts of the US and Canada in the New York Times – “In an instant that one utility official called “a blink-of-the-eye second” shortly after 4 p.m., the grid that distributes electricity to the eastern United States became overloaded. As circuit breakers tripped at generating stations from New York to Michigan and into Canada, millions of people were instantly caught up in the largest blackout in American history.” – reminded me of the first few pages of Duncan Watts’ book “Six Degrees“. Watts talks about small worlds and the interconnectedness among people and things. Sometimes, this same “small world” theory can work in a way that can cause problems for many.

Happy Indian Independence Day

In a special series on India’s Independence Day, Arun Shourie, India’s Minister of IT and Disinvestment, writes about a topic I have discussed often in my writings – the New India. Shourie writes about India’s many successes in recent years and asks: “Why is it that so few among us know even the elementary facts about these successes? Why is it that so much of public, specifically political, discourse, when it is not whining is just wailing?” Why, indeed?

India’s star is on the ascendant. And it is up to each of us – not our government, bureaucrats or politicians, but us ordinary Indians in India and outside – to craft out an extraordinary future for India. The game is ours to lose from here on.

Smart Dust

Sensors are edging their way into news quite frequently now. SJ Mercury News has a story on smart dust (a wireless sensor network).

It works this way:

Make sensors that are very cheap and very small. They can measure anything you like, from vibration to light levels; or they can perform more complicated tasks, such as taking pictures or analyzing chemicals.

Attach them to the smallest and least powerful computer that will do the job. Cut the power requirements to a bare minimum by allowing the computers to relay messages to one another, and then onto a central receiver, via radio.

Then scatter them by the dozens, hundreds or thousands to keep watch on just about anything.

Because the network examines a problem from so many vantage points, it can produce a much denser and richer picture of what is going on, researchers say.

Brainstorm 2003

Fortune had a conference recently to discuss the future. Reading the rationale makes me want to have been there in Aspen.

Why does Fortune do Brainstorm? I guess the simplest reason is…the world is screwed up. We have a lot of problems, but the most fundamental is that those of us in a few developed countries have enormous wealth, but most people in the world remain very poor. Yet poor people, no matter where they live, always seem to find enough to spend on communications. TV, cellphones, and now even the Internet at those ubiquitous Internet cafesthese are literally everywhere.

All that technology is a windowthe poor now see the rich with unprecedented clarity. They see what the rich have, and they want some. Thus, the world’s economic divide is becoming unsustainable. The way it looks to me, we’ve reached a point where the world is fundamentally unstable. Yet it will seek equilibrium. Either we start bringing those people up or we will assuredly begin going down. With all the recent clamor about job losses in the U.S., in just about every industry and job type, one could argue that that latter process has already begun.

Brainstorm proceeds from the premise that business is part of the problems and part of the solutions.

Maybe if Emergic and RISC work they’ll invite us sometime!

Is HP the new Apple?

This is a question discussed by David Kirkpatrick (Fortune) followinf HP’s launch of 158 new products earlier in the week.

HP, said CEO Carly Fiorina, didnt merely want to “think different,” in an allusion to Apples marketing slogan, but to “rethink everything.”

“Simple integrated technology not for the geeksfor the masses.” Thats how Fiorina described the mission of Hewlett-Packard in my interview with her shortly after the companys presentation. She argued that this giant consumer launch, to be supported by a $300 million marketing campaign this fall, fits in clearly with an overall company strategy. “In September 2001 when we announced our merger with Compaq, I said customers arent interested in stand-alone boxes or killer apps anymore,” she said. “They want it all to work better.” She said [the] announcement was about making it all work better in the home, just as HPs “adaptive enterprise” strategy for business customers aims to make tech work together better there. “The theme of simplifying and integrating is common in every market we serve.”

The new mantra in technology seems to be Simplification and Integration.

Test-driven Development

InfoWorld has an interview with Ward Cunningham, a pioneer of Extreme Programming and test-driven development, and the inventor of Wiki. He advocates a “test-first” methodology in doing software development.

Developers use tests to communicate with other developers. The social contract says, “Here’s my code, do anything you want with it so long as you have and run my tests. You’re unlikely to hurt me if you continue to pass those tests. If you do fail a test, come talk to me.”

when you’re writing code, you’re focused on a single goal. When you’re writing a test, you’re deciding, “Of all the goals I know I have, what goal will I focus on next?” It’s a sequencing thing. Do I take a little step or a big one? And how am I going to check that step?

We think writing the software is more important than testing it. It should be the other way around. We need to put in place appropriate test harnesses for all that we develop.

US Hotspot Market

Gelnn Fleishman writes that far from being dead, the US WiFi hotspot market is getting set to bloom: “We’re about to see a domestic market of about 5,000 hot spots (which includes hotels with just public Wi-Fi) grow to 10,000 to 15,000 by year’s end and 30,000 to 40,000 by the end of 2004. The commitments are now there. They just need to find the customers.”

TECH TALK: IT’s Future: Leslie Walker and Dan Faber

Networked Computing has Matured

Leslie Walker has a commentary in the Washington Post:

Most technology enthusiasts would probably concede that computers and the Internet are so pervasive now that by themselves they confer scant strategic advantage. But in the same breath many insist it’s the nitty-gritty of how companies use technology that can differentiate them — in other words, the nuances of how they implement digital links with partners, suppliers and customers still allow room for creativity and improvementBut such contentions can be true without contradicting Carr’s larger point — that networked computing has matured to a historic turning point, one marked by standards taking hold in key areas as they did with electricity, railways, the telephone and the telegraph. When standards settle in, they often sweep aside early advantages that vendors and their savvy business customers gained by exploiting proprietary technologies developed when the industry was in its infancy.

This perspective provides an interesting view of fading stars in the information technology industry, companies such as Oracle and Sun Microsystems, which rose on the basis of proprietary technologies that have been widely replicated by others. Consumer giant America Online is another company that brilliantly exploited information technology in the early days by developing proprietary software programs (think chat, e-mail, message boards and instant messaging) that have lost luster in the face of competition and growing Web software standards. And while other Internet pioneers such as Amazon.com and eBay have transformed hard-to-sustain technology advantages into more durable leads based on name recognition and huge transaction volumes, most early innovators will not be so lucky.

Carr may be early in calling this a turning point for the industry — for some companies, there probably still is strategic value left to be squeezed out of clever implementation of information technology. But the elbow room for seizing sustainable leads through technology is clearly diminishing as standards proliferate and computing power accelerates.

IT Commoditisation

An excerpt from Dan Fabers commentary in ZDNet:

I agree that IT infrastructure as we know it today is heading toward a kind of commoditization, but the road is not well paved.

Embedded in the universal call to reduce the complexity of IT is a move toward more standards, such as Web services, and a more level playing field in terms of technology. Prepackaged server clusters, software suites, outsourcing, and the push toward on-demand computing by the industry heavyweights all signal a focus on lowering the cost to deploy and manage technology. New categories or niches of software and hardware will continue to spring up that bring proprietary advantages to the vendors and customers, but they will mostly be short-lived. Differentiation among companies delivering IT products and services will have more to do with support, security, availability, integration, and the trust factor. Technology as a competitive weapon is more about execution and competency than a secret sauce.

Does that make IT less visible, more of commodity? Yes and no. It’s a commodity if the technology itself is built out of fairly standard components that don’t vary greatly among vendors or provide truly unique advantages. However, the problem is that most software vendors have not figured out yet how to build reliable, easy-to-configure-and-use software, and IT organizations are often dysfunctional. While IT executives wish that building an IT solution were as easy as plugging servers, software, and end-user devices into a network grid, that’s not the case. Carr’s notion of the commoditization and homogenization of infrastructure gives too much credit to IT as a mature industry with an established base of technology Hagel-Brown and GM CIO and best practices that will evolve linearly.

Although IT is becoming ubiquitous, especially via the Internet and the declining pricing for increasingly powerful technology, it is also messed up. The Internet may be the equivalent of the U.S. standard railroad gauge, but delivering value along that track is often elusive. IT is absolutely a strategic and competitive advantage to companies that can implement and manage it effectively-even if the constituent parts are more universal and provide no distinct advantage themselves.

We know a lot about automating processes with computers, for example, but we are just at the beginning of automating computing itself, which is an essential next step in IT evolution. In that scenario, several layers of IT can be viewed as a commodity—as a common foundation upon which new, strategically important technology innovations will arise.

Next Week: ITs Future (continued)

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