IT futurist gazes into market

While Jeff Wacker looks more IT manager than mad scientist, as the futurist for Plano, Tex.-based EDS Corp., Wacker does spend his days looking past the nuts and bolts of IT to what’s coming down the road. It’s not something those caught up in the day-to-day of the business have the luxury of doing.

When asked what will be the “next big thing” to fuel IT, Wacker unveils his recipe. “The next big thing always requires three things: a pent-up need; a technology that’s in existence; and a spark, a killer app…that makes legitimate the technology to fill that need.”

He notes that in computing’s early days, computers had to go from vacuum tubes to transistors to become the next big thing. At that time, the need was for computational capabilities. In a business environment that was becoming international, people just couldn’t keep up anymore. Computers were the technology, but the transition to transistors on the hardware side and a common operating system on the software side were the sparks that made it the next big thing of its time.

The next big thing to follow computers, Wacker says, was the move to eight-bit processing in 1973. That was the technology, the need was for departmental processing projects and the killer app was a spreadsheet program known as VisiCalc, bringing programming capabilities to the masses. The personal computer was born.

The most recent big thing was the Internet; the need was global communications and the killer app was the Web browser. Each change, Wacker notes, was a 16- to 20-year cycle.

“The first half of the cycle is investment; the second half is integration. They create fortunes, and they destroy fortunes. Before 1956, EDS didn’t exist and IBM was a typewriter company. Microsoft didn’t exist before the PC. Now there are fortunes being made by Google, Amazon and eBay and they didn’t exist before 1991.”

Wacker says 2008 looks to be the start of the next cycle, with venture capitalists looking at mid-2007 as the launching point for a host of new capabilities and technologies.

And what’s that next big thing going to be? With a greying workforce and a skills shortage fueling the increasing automation of IT processes, Wacker says simulation modeling and prediction technologies will be the next major technology shift.

“The computer is the tractor of the 1900s. Nearly 99 out of 100 farmhands lost their jobs when the first tractors came in.” With the increasing automation of business processes as well as the consolidation of hardware infrastructure driven by trends like virtualization, Wacker says the cost of an IT failure to the business is becoming increasingly high. In turn, that is fueling the need for complex simulation modeling technology to identify potential problems so that they can be rectified before they occur and hurt the business.

“We’ve got this whole world of predictability that is coming online. Most companies don’t yet have a sense-and-respond model, they have a cause-and-effect model.”

The technology fueling this shift will include the next-generation architecture of multicore processors, with the parallel processing capabilities they enable offering the computing power necessary to run complex simulation programs. This will also mean that massive amounts of data will be required and generated, enabled by new holographic and crystalline storage technologies.

The key, Wacker says, will be getting contextual information rather than historical information. It’s not “I sold five umbrellas this time last year so I’ll probably sell five tomorrow,” but rather “it’s going to rain tomorrow, therefore I’ll probably sell more umbrellas, so I should put them on display.”

Whacker also believes the coming shift toward utility computing will be the first step toward a model of brokered IT service delivery.

“You’ll go to a broker, and a broker will find you [enough] computing power for the next 13 seconds. Everything that has gone commodity has been connected, source to market, through a broker; that’s the cheapest form of making a connection between a provider and a user. They’ll provide value-added services in the process of guaranteeing [the service]. We’re talking with a lot of companies that have this in their plans.”

This model of IT delivery means a massive consolidation of major IT service providers won’t be necessary, as the brokers will fill the role of integrating different service providers into one package for the customer, Wacker says.

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