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The Infinite Spiral – The Software Industry Lost in the Clouds

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It certainly isn’t news to anyone who has followed the software industry that there are many big changes in the works. We’ve seen articles in the past few years proclaiming the death of the desktop operating system, the desktop machine itself, and now the very concept of “owning” software or even the data we produce using computers and applications. Welcome back to the world as it was before inexpensive microcomputers, memory and digital storage put a computer full of productive applications within the reach of everyone.

Welcome to the virtual world of clouds, where your computer is only a conceptual image, the applications you use are transparent and your data is available everywhere, on every communications device you use.

Wait a minute! What did I mean by “Welcome back…”? Consider, before we had computing power on our own desktops, we had “dumb terminals.” These were just keyboards and monitors connected by modem interfaces to mainframes. They had no local applications, data or control. Sure, the machines we use today have no relationship to those primitive devices. We have more computing power in the dumbest cell phone than we did in a terminal. But, the relationship we’ve known for the past thirty years is ending. We don’t need to have a desktop computer to tap into rich communications, media or applications. We can do it with our cell phone, a netbook, a notepad – cheap, light, mobile devices that are little more than smart communication and display machines. We don’t need gigabytes of storage – we can get it cheaply on a monthly basis and access it from any device, anywhere, anytime.

All of this has moved from so many directions and so fast we’ve barely noticed. We went from cell phones to smart phones, from analog TVs with over the air receivers to digital signals on cable and from dial-up modems to broadband almost simultaneously. We now have social media, virtual communities and friends around the world we can talk to and see anytime. What has brought us this sea change? Fast, reliable communication networks, vast computing resources and a view of the world outside our doors at a price that is within reach of more people than ever before.

Ok – so the software and communications industry is taking us on a new journey right? They have a clear idea of what’s next and how to deliver it. I can hardly wait to see what comes next. …Well, yes and no. As a person in the industry, helping companies develop new products in this environment, I can tell you there is actually more denial and fear than new strategies. Some of the top executives in the industry have been quoted numerous times saying all of this is just a bubble. Clouds are just fog. There is no new paradigm. What are they thinking?

Go back to my opening statements. The age of personal computing is approaching 30 years. People who started in the software industry 10, 15, 20 years ago and are leading executives today have never known anything other than personal computers or local servers, purchased applications, and a cycle of change lead by regular releases at trade shows. They have based their products, their business models, and their entire careers on this “stable” model. At the top end of the industry, the “enterprise market,” we’re thoroughly entrenched in corporate data centers and layers of support staff. Telling these executives they are riding dinosaurs into the sunset is a very difficult task. Telling them they don’t know what we knew 30 years ago about service delivery in a virtual world is to equivalent to speaking Greek in a restaurant in China.

So why is this a problem? When I speak to executives in the industry today I realize we don’t know what we don’t know. Yes, any good businessperson can find their way given enough time and money and many have done so. The problem is most of the software behind line of business productivity today has been developed for closed environments and local installation. It doesn’t instantly scale to thousands of users or communicate with other applications seamlessly. It doesn’t mesh into social networks or cross global boundaries easily. Mobile, light computing devices? – ummm, maybe next year. But even worse, most of the companies who brought these applications out have no expertise in running data centers or tending communities of end-users. Their organizations and business models are stuck in reverse and they don’t have the time, money or expertise to drop everything and head in the opposite direction.

The result is many software vendors looking like a deer in the path of a train at night. They know they are in danger, but they don’t know where to run or what is next. They don’t know what is coming at them but it is noisy and it smells funny.

What does this mean? For many, it means a lot of opportunity. Industry incumbents are going to fall. A new herd of start-ups will fill the space but in the meantime there will be a lot of thrash and a lot of marketing spent on names we won’t remember next year. A lot of people in small companies who serve line of business verticals in industry will have to rethink their careers or learn the new language of virtual computing and broadband communications. It isn’t going to be easy and it isn’t going to be pretty for everyone but we can’t stop the changes we’ve started.

This is my world. This is where I work, helping companies, organizations and entrepreneurs adapt to new technology. The good thing for me is there is no end of work and we’re in a new cycle. This article is just an introduction. I hope you’ll join me as I reach out to people in this turn of the wheel. I can’t help anyone who doesn’t know they need more information, more thought, before they make their next move. My writing here is an attempt to fill that void. I hope to hear from you and to able to extend the conversation to your context.

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About Michael Dunham

  • http://writer.fitzhome.com Fitz

    Great article. You make some really solid points. I think, as you said, there’s serious opportunity out there for folks who “get it” to capitalize on the Cloud. Netbooks and mobile devices are more and more prevalent every day, so I think it’s inevitable. I worry about all the security concerns and cyberterrorism with all this data floating around out there – somewhere. But it’s already happening, so I suppose I should just get used to it. :)