Back to the future: new buzz-phrases, familiar problems

By Chris Middleton
06 Sep 2012 View Comments
Big data artwork

2012 has been a year of unprecedented extremes: economic meltdown and heightened political tensions across the world, combined with national pride, achievement and celebration within the UK. An unforgettable year by any standards, the legacy of which needs careful management as the UK economy struggles to find the path to recovery.

Further reading

For the technology sector, 2012 has been characterised by some old ideas being repackaged in innovative ways, as new enabling technologies become available. One idea – DNA as a data storage medium – is as old as life itself, but in August 2012 DNA was used to encode the contents of an illustrated book and a computer program – the biggest dataset yet stored in this way.

With costs falling and one gramme of DNA able to store a theoretical 455 billion gigabytes of data, according to the journal Science, the technology may emerge as a viable alternative to conventional digital storage within a decade. Its advantages include remaining readable over thousands of years – not to mention being a technology that has been tried and tested since life began on the planet.

IP, therefore I am

“Old ideas” were also at the centre of multibillion-dollar patent lawsuits in 2012 between Apple and Samsung, Apple and Google, Google and Oracle, Oracle and HP, and numerous others, while a raft of patents owned by former giants such as AOL, Kodak and others changed hands throughout the year.

All of these market manoeuvres demonstrated that intellectual property (IP) is everything in the technology sector – even if the peer-to-peer business models that the industry supports challenge some traditional concepts of IP ownership and licensing.

For the vendors, there is much at stake: Google’s search, mapping and online application dominance is being given an own-branded hardware front end with the Nexus 7 tablet, while its Android OS powers market-leading mobile devices. In the commercial marketplace, Samsung’s mobile hardware battle with Apple has been tilting in Samsung’s favour in terms of market share, although Apple owns the OS and apps as well as the hardware. Meanwhile, the debut of Microsoft’s Surface “tablet with a keyboard” – derided by some when it was announced – could yet win the enterprise, thanks to Microsoft’s massive installed base within organisations.

Facebook – globally dominant as a social platform – proved to be an IPO in search of a business model in 2012, a self-made stock-bubble that deflated to (at the time of writing) nearly half of its opening-day value.

That said, Facebook remains a dark horse in enterprise technology terms: its App Center launched in summer 2012, with rumours of own-branded hardware to come. A platform that up to one-fifth of the world’s population chooses to use every day should never be discounted in terms of business, organisational and networking potential.

In 2012 some age-old technology decisions have once again been on IT leaders’ agendas, as platform, hardware and operating system choices moved to the forefront of the enterprise technology buyers’ market once more – choices that many IT leaders thought had been made once and for all in the 1990s.

If the switchback caught some UK IT strategists unawares, then it was through no fault of their own. Since the late 1990s, industry analysts had collectively been promising a future of seamless, internet-driven services delivered over platform-agnostic devices – a vision, in other words, in which the application was everything, and the underlying hardware platforms or operating systems were largely irrelevant.

That vision seemed to come to pass in the first decade of the new century when the strategic business focus shifted to the cloud – infrastructure, platforms and software delivered as a service over public, private or hybrid networks. In 2012, these technologies continue to gather momentum.

In the cloud version of enterprise computing, the choice of which hardware device and operating system to use to access on-demand services seemed to be superfluous, given that it was – on the surface, at least – simply a matter of users opening their browsers to access complementary storage, computing power and applications. “The cloud” seemed to be synonymous with the internet, and so promised an end to shrink-wrapped software and all the licensing restrictions that came with it.

Not only that, but well over 90 per cent of legacy enterprise systems had a desktop, Windows-based front end. So what choice was there left to make? That battle had long ago been won by Microsoft and the commodity PC manufacturers, leaving Linux and Apple’s MacOS trailing far behind.

Vendor lock-in, cloud-style

Of course, the reality is rather different: there is no one “cloud”, but many. And once the vapourware and hype were swept away from on-demand platforms and services, it became clear to IT leaders that most cloud computing services simply represented a new form of vendor- and platform lock-in to rented datacentres. Hardly the free, unfettered access to a world of enterprise-class services that the marketing spiels of Salesforce.com and others had suggested.

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