Four Score and Seven Years Ago

Today, August 5, has a number of interesting anniversaries in the world of technology and government. In 1858 the first transatlantic telegraph cable was completed, allowing President James Buchanan and Queen Victoria to share congratulatory messages the following week. (Unfortunately within a month the cable had broken down for good.)  The first quasar (“quasi-stellar astronomical radio object”) was discovered on Aug. 5, 1962. And exactly one year later the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed on August 5, 1963, between the U.S., U.S.S.R., and Great Britain.

But one important date I’d like to commemorate was a bit different: eighty-seven years ago today, on August 5, 1923, my father was born, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Happy Birthday, Dad!

There’s a shorthand way of telling my father’s life-history which fits with the theme of technological advance: he graduated from college (his beloved N.C. State) as an early recipient of a B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering; he worked for decades for a growing company interested in adopting new technologies to drive its business; and he capped his career as Corporate Vice President for Research and Development at a Fortune 300 company.

But that misses the fun he had along the way, and the close-up view he had of innovation. He was an early adopter, even before college. (I like to think I get that from him.)  So I thought I’d illustrate a couple of vignettes I’ve heard over the years of his interaction with computers along the way, simply to portray the thrust of radical change that has paced along during the course of one man’s life.

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The Cyber Trough of Disillusionment

I’ll call the moment: the cyber security field is now past its giddy buzzword peak.

Gartner is well known for preparing “hype cycle” analysis of technology sectors, as in their recent publication of the 2009 “Hype Cycle for Social Software.” That report got a lot of attention on Twitter and in blogs, naturally; social medians are nothing if not self-reflective regarding their community. I thought an interesting take was by an IBM developer, who compared the 2008 version against the new one, measuring the changes in predicted “time to maturity” for individual technologies, and thereby coming up with something like a measure of acceleration. By that measure, individual blogging and social search made the most rapid gains.

But I notice something missing on the full list of 79 Gartner hype cycle reports: there’s not one about “cyber security.”

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Follow NASA Innovation on Twitter

Yesterday my group hosted a meeting at Microsoft Reston with the ILO Institute on “Innovation in Large Organizations.”  The ILO Institute always brings together great clients (FedEx, Time Warner, SAIC, IBM, US Postal Service) and yesterday was no exception, with an eclectic group from NIH, DoJ, NASA, RTI, GTSI and others. The discussion about that seeming oxymoron – innovation in large organizations – was fascinating, with lively threads about distinctions between Microsoft and Apple for example, and whether the latter is actually a technology company or a fashion company.  [My opinion: its success comes from its fashion/marketing leadership, not technical advances.]

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Gartner sees Hype Cycle for Social Software

Fact: Gartner now says that “Web 2.0 software” is falling from its “Peak of Inflated Expectations” and is on its way to a “Trough of Disillusionment.”  However, Gartner finds that wiki software has traversed that path already and is now well on its way up again to mature enterprise acceptance as a valuable productivity tool.

Analysis: Gartner’s just released their 2008 “Hype Cycle” report on Social Software – you know, stuff like public virtual worlds and Web 2.0 tools.

(I don’t know the legality of republishing the actual chart itself, so I’m not including it; I use the Microsoft enteprise license to access Gartner research.  I do note that a Web 2.0 enthusiast from the Netherlands has already posted the new Hype Cycle chart another new and related Hype Cycle chart, on “emerging technologies,” as a Flickr image here. There’s great overlap between the two reports.)

I’ve written before about the usefulness of Gartner analyses; I have to admit that Hype Cycles are my favorites. There’s something about internally debating their judgment calls as your eye travels the path, from pre-adoption “Technology Triggers,” through the bubble-esque “Peak of Inflated Expectations,” and right down into the depths of the “Trough of Disillusionment.” 

If you’re an enterprise IT guy, in a CIO or CTO role or investigating/recommending/approving new technology investments, you really wind up focusing most time on the slow ascending climb to the right of the chart, what Gartner calls the “Slope of Enlightenment.”  Just as in the old days when corporate “data-processing” chiefs lived by the mantra “No one ever got fired for buying IBM,” today’s CIO’s rely on technology that has essentially graduated to Gartner’s “Plateau of Productivity.”

Several other initial observations on the chart:the two Hype Cycle charts:

  • Newest disruptive technology trigger charted: “Erasable Paper Printing Systems,” something being researched by numerous large companies like HP and Microsoft as well as already in startup mode, but pegged by Gartner as still 10 years or more from mainstream adoption
  • Microsoft’s Surface has achieved brand dominance, as Gartner puts “Surface Computers” on the rise in visibility
  • Other key investments of Microsoft Research are validated with positive momentum ascribed to “Mobile Robots,” “Augmented Reality,” and “Green IT,” though only the last one is within 5 years of mature adoption
  • “Cloud Computing” is still on the rise, not having peaked in hype yet, though many would find that hard to believe – with its Time Magazine cover last year, it’s practically reached the point of being satired on The Daily Show
  • “Public Virtual Worlds” are right alongside “Web 2.0” in still heading down toward their disappointment trough
  • Furthest to the right – meaning most mature and enterprise-worthy – is the seemingly venerable “Basic Web Services.”

I really like these reports for a number of reasons – among other things, it looking at them together makes clear the social aspect of a number of more mature technologies (Tablet PC, Electronic Paper) which I favor, and which too often are recognized only for their technical aspects, not the socially enabling and disruptive benefits within and across organizations. 

The Gartner report also allows the blogosphere and twitterverse to step back from the moment-to-moment faddishness of the social software sector, and reflect upon the larger context of the individual technologies.  One measure of health: not a single technology earned the dubious distinction of “Obsolete Before Plateau,” a mark of shame which Gartner regularly applies to technologies that are getting hype but show no longterm promise.

Taken together, the social software space appears robust and very, very interesting.  Get a hold of the full report, it’s worth it.

Note: post updated 8/12/2008 to add references to a second Hype Cycle report on “Emerging Technologies”


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The “Rush to the Cloud” – Not So Fast…

Had a great time on Wednesday on a panel at the “Defense 2.0” conference, at the Arlington Ritz-Carlton.  I believe I learned as much from my fellow panelists from Cisco, IBM and so forth – about the importance of information security and assurance – as any conference in recent memory.  The story in Government Computer News (“Defense 2.0 a Work in Progress“) captures the views of most of the speakers. 

I had a gentle and gentlemanly disagreement with the keynote speaker, Mike Nelson.  Mike has a distinguished career, working with Internet-inventor Al Gore while he was VP, and later Director of Internet Technology and Strategy at IBM.  I offered that he was perhaps slightly overly enamored of the “rush to the Cloud” school of thinking.  I’ve written about that school of thought before, and the balance of where computing power is likely to reside in future, given Moore’s Law for the foreseeable future.  The GCN quotes capture my thinking in short form: there’ll be the cloud, along with increasingly powerful computing in local form factors (some desktops, more laptops, handhelds, mobiles, and embedded-computing forms of all sorts).

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Google App Engine and the Gathering of Clouds

How many Cloud Computing platforms would you say there are today? 

Some abhor the notion of there being multiple clouds – by this thinking there is only one “cloud” in an almost Zen manner, meaning “the grid” and the ability to reach in, somewhere somehow, and use someone else’s compute capacity, web apps, services, storage, etc.  Some others, however, as Amazon and others roll out their branded ability to do that reach, are beginning to call these “clouds” — I prefer to think about them as distinct platforms enabling cloud computing, but that’s starting to become a hazy definition. 

Next week the world will hear more about Microsoft’s Mesh strategy.

I feel like an observer out on a prairie on a hot summer afternoon, watching the sky as cumulo-nimbus shapes emerge and burgeon across the horizon.  The multiplicity is going to inevitably lead to feature differentiation, competitive marketing, a full hype cycle with naysayers and boosters (see Fortune magazine), down-market competition, shoddy wannabe clouds, boom and bust, market shake-out, etc. etc. – good times! 

How many such platforms (how many clouds) will there be in future?  How many should there be?  And if multiplication really occurs, is this any different from “utility computing” and aren’t we heading back to the days of the mainframe-model of time-sharing?

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Friendships and Professional Relationships

FACT: The General Accounting Office has lifted a week-old ban imposed on IBM’s ability to win any new federal contracts (or work on new task orders for existing contracts).  But, according to ComputerWorld, “IBM still faces an investigation by the EPA as well as a federal grand jury probe over a bid for a contract at the agency in 2006.” The ban had been imposed because of significant problems in the process surrounding the $84 million Environmental Protection Agency contract, which the company lost last year. 

ANALYSIS: Now that the ban has been lifted, I am glad to relay the news — not only because I blogged about it when imposed but also because I admire IBM and its work for government. But the circumstances made me think about my own current set of relationships with former colleagues in the federal government.

According to the AP’s account of the agreement struck with IBM leading to the ban’s lifting, which I read in Enterprise Security Today, “Several IBM employees allegedly obtained protected information from an EPA employee, ‘which IBM officials knew was improperly acquired, and used the information during its negotiations to improve its chance of winning a contract,’ according to the agreement. Such an act violated federal procedures… IBM has placed five individuals on administrative leave pending its own internal investigation and any federal probe.”

I don’t have more to say about the issue per se, other than riffing on that human aspect of the affair to make a personal comment about my own experience since leaving the federal government’s payroll last December….

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