For more than 20 years there has been talk about the digital economy, the digital society, the digital world and even the Information Revolution – there are many names but it’s basically all about being digital. Today, web-scale, widely-accessible digital technologies are fueling disruptive changes in a wide range of businesses and industries.
Are these changes mainly due to entrepreneurial innovation or do they form part of some larger global transformation? In other words, is there a ‘bigger picture’ for the emerging digital technologies themselves and also for how they are disrupting both business and society?
As I see it, four levels of disruption need to be considered:
- Social Model (Context) disruption – drastic change in the way society functions and how we live, work and play, as well as changes in the context for business; email and text messaging, for example, have changed how people interact (and decreased the volume of postal mail); social apps like Facebook let people easily and quickly record their lives and share their experiences;
- Business Model disruption – changing the products and services that businesses offer their customers, both individually and in aggregate; examples include digital photography replacing film, personal cars as a substitute for licensed taxis (UberX), or rooms in homes substituting for hotel services (AIRbnb);
- Operating Model disruption – new processes and practices for business execution (or for an industry, or even a country); for example, hotels.com changes how hotel rooms are discovered, priced and booked, but doesn’t change the basic business of offering room stays;
- Infrastructure Model disruption – changes in the underlying resources (including people, property and technology) that support the operation of business or social services; for example, self-serve personal funds transfer can improve bill payment convenience without changing the banking business or its practices.
The infrastructure technologies that are widely thought to be the keys to the next generation of IT (they are sometimes referred to as SMAC) are:
- Social networks – public systems such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter provide rich connections among consumers;
- Mobility and wireless – services and ecosystems that allow communications to be wireless (4G/5G LTE) and mobile, and which support location-based services; accessible through many types of device including tablets, smartphones and wearables;
- Analytics and big data – the collection, storage and processing of large datasets to support evidence-based predictions and conclusions, often about customer behavior; exploits data from social networks, IoT, event detection, and many other publicly accessible data sources (such as weather);
- Cloud computing – processing, storage and network services offered by third-party providers as an alternative to traditional corporate systems; may be shared and delivered on a pay-as-you-go basis (see NIST or ISO for more background);
There are, however, various other digital technologies and related methods that are important parts of the new IT landscape, including:
- Internet of Things (IoT) – Internet-connected sensors and controllers embedded in everything from cars to kitchen appliances to clothes; data collected from over 50 billion devices within five years;
- Software Defined Networks – a style of network architecture that separates the network controls from packet forwarding; implements flexible and adaptable Network-as-a-Service capabilities using software;
- Network Function Virtualization – modularization and standardization of network infrastructure functions (i.e., the selectable components of a network-as-a-service offering); support for tailorable network services and rapid development of new features;
- Dev/Ops – an approach to software engineering that emphasizes continuous development, rapid deployment and agility; takes a supply chain approach to development, testing and implementation;
- Application Containerization – a platform architecture that encapsulates an application so that it can be moved and executed on any system; the best known example is Docker;
- Microservices – an style of software engineering that breaks application into small independent, de-coupled components that interact via standard APIs and combine to form the desired application;
- Open source software and openness – although not really new, the “crowdsourcing” of software development and the provision of freely available code; the Open Source Initiative’s definition is that “open source describes a broad general type of software license that makes source code available to the general public with relaxed or non-existent copyright restrictions”;
- Blockchain – a distributed database technology that is the underpinning protocols for Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency system; provides a method to securely store any kind of digital information on the Internet (including but not only financial transactions).
It seems to me that we talk more about the pieces of the puzzle, and less about the puzzle itself.
Can we derive a big picture of the IT business by examining the components? At least there now seems to be a name for the big picture: The Third Platform, or perhaps The Third Wave in IT. Quite often, assigning a label is a major step forward towards crystallizing the vision.
I won’t presume to have the final answer, but here’s a few characteristics that I believe must be covered by any IT ecosystem of the future:
- It is software-based – all services and all components will be built from and controlled by software, including software-defined everything, agile service development, multilevel virtualization, standardized APIs, etc.;
- It is multivendor – no single vendor can create or provide everything, so modularization, coordination and standardization is essential;
- It is widely distributed – endpoints will literally be everywhere and will need to interconnect widely;
- It is highly shared – everything from the network to the data collected from sensors will need to be easy to find, inexpensive to access and widely shared by multiple competing providers;
- It is secure and reliable – the ability to operate correctly and privately within a shared ecosystem and without active human involvement, despite physical and logical disturbances, is needed; and
- It is automated – both initial service provisioning and ongoing oversight must be automated in order to avoid/minimize human bottlenecks.
This is what I think. I’m sure there are many other characteristics that ought to be included – do you have any candidates not mentioned here?