Intel’s chief strategist and the search for the next million users

So one evening Andy Grove, the former chairman of Intel Corp., called up Chris Thomas and asked him to do him favour: rent out an airplane hanger, fill it with servers, and basically replicate investment services firm Charles Schwab’s data centre.

At first, the chief strategist for the world’s leading semiconductor maker thought Grove was kidding. “But the next morning, I found US$5 million in my bank account,” he says. “The problem was that Schwab was running IBM and he wanted to show them they could run on Intel instead.”

In the end, Thomas managed to make the sale by simply showing them what could be accomplished with Linux and a few other products and now, he claims, Schwab is about 90 per cent Intel-based. Quite a way to land a customer. But that’s nothing compared to Thomas’ next mission, which is to find Intel’s next billion customers.

I met Thomas following his keynote speech at CIO Exchange, an event that was put on by IT World Canada and the CIO Association of Canada today at the Toronto Board of Trade. He talked in general terms about our theme of “open vs. secure,” but I think he got most people’s attention when he brought up his work with Nethope, a non-profit IT consortium working with major NGOs in developing regions.

In what he called an “extreme case study,” Thomas described the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative, which is a project between Intel and Catholic Relief Services to educate farmers in Africa about two virulent diseases that are hitting fields and wiping out crops. While everyone has heard about the cell phone usage in Africa, the costly data plans and power issues make using them as a client device impossible for e-learning purposes. Instead, Intel and Catholic Relief Services are using laptops and through a combination of project management savvy and significant funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, an rollout that might normally take three or more years has been accomplished in less than one.

Why is this important? Because Intel has already done a lot of work to get its first potential billion customers – mostly in North America, Europe and so on – digitally connected. The work Thomas is doing with NetHope and others will hopefully do a lot of good, but it will also get Intel inroads with an even wider customer base.

It often seems that when we talk about the developing world we assume that we in the “first world” are doing it right and we’ll benevolently bring the rest of the planet up to our standards. I asked Thomas if he was seeing the beginning of any best practices in places like Africa that IT departments here should follow.

“Yes, in the education system, surprisingly,” he said. “They’re starting to set themselves up as mini-enterprises. They may only have one server but instead taking everything and putting in the cloud they’re seeing keeping some things local. They’re not connected to the Internet – it’s all intranets – but they’re proving to be really effective at what they’re trying to do.”

The sales cycle for the continent of Africa will be a lot different than capturing a Charles Schwab, but what Intel learns about building IT infrastructure from the ground up could be highly insightful for organizations here that are taking monolithic legacy IT and trying to pare things down. Think of people like Thomas as a sort of IT exchange student. Nethope, the IT industry and the world at large are going to need a lot more of them.

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