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The Future of Computing
Will it become a utility similar to electricity, flowing in from large centralized plants?
by Reid Goldsborough

Link-Up Digital
September 15, 2005

You wouldn’t think, a quarter century after the personal computer revolution booted up, that ivory tower academics and computer press pundits would still be debating how information technology can make us most productive.

But they are, in no small part because of the writings of Nicholas G. Carr (http://www.nicholasgcarr.com), former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review. In response to his spring 2005 MIT Sloan Management Review article “The End of Corporate Computing,” publications ranging from Forbes to Computerworld have carried the yeas and nays.

Carr’s thesis is that the current incarnation of corporate computing is too fragmented and too wasteful and that it should, and will, be put out to pasture. This follows his equally provocative 2003 Harvard Business Review article “IT Doesn’t Matter,” which held forth that because information technology has become a commodity and is nearly universally adopted, companies can no longer gain a competitive advantage by investing heavily in it.

That article aggrandized into Carr’s 2004 book Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage, published by the Harvard Business School Press.

If it weren’t for Carr’s blue-chip resume and the big-name responses he has spurred, you might be tempted to write him off as the egghead provocateur a la mode who gives the digerati something to talk about over lunch.

His ideas are stimulating. According to his most recent article, which is available as a $6.50 download from MIT (http://sloanreview.mit.edu/smr/issue/2005/spring/13), computer technology will become a utility such as electricity, flowing in from large centralized generating plants, supplanting local programs and local storage space.

It’s not a new idea. “Web applications,” programs you access through “application service providers” over the Internet, were hot during the dot-com bubble of 2000 and 2001 before many of the companies offering them went belly up. And all this harkens back to the even older practice of using “dumb terminals” and renting processing time with big mainframe computers.

But Carr provides compelling support for his “utility” computing model. According to statistics he gathered, the current IT infrastructure in corporate America is overbuilt and underutilized. Most network servers use 10 to 35 percent of their available processing power, while desktop computers use only 5 percent. More than half of a typical company’s data storage capacity is wasted.

The installation of the same software on different computers is also wasteful, he says, creating large upfront purchasing costs as well as excessive ongoing support and maintenance costs. About 60 percent of a typical company’s IT staffing budget is spent on routine support and maintenance.

In short, companies spend too much time and money on tools at the expense of their core business.

Carr’s ideas have been criticized for being simplistic and for underplaying security concerns. There’s also the small issue of the personal in personal computing. Whether from individuals laboring within the bureaucracy of a large organization, entrepreneurs toiling in a basement office, or people working in a setting in between, much innovation comes about through personal decisions about which tools work best for specific solutions.

A formidable array of vested interest and installed infrastructure supports the status quo, from equipment providers and software developers to those who make their living writing about them, and the inertia resulting from it may prevent the wide-scale changes that Carr writes about.

The only force powerful enough to effect changes as disruptive as these is money. The most cogent comment I’ve read about Carr is from Dan Farber, editor in chief of ZDNet (http://www.zdnet.com). In his ZDNet blog, Farber wrote: “When purchasing computing from a utility costs a half or a third of what enterprises spend today to power their applications and data centers, the era of the IT utility will have arrived.”

There’s unquestionably room for greater efficiency in the way information technology tools are delivered and used, and Carr offers a lot to think about. In the meantime, more pedestrian means to boost IT productivity are already at hand, means that can be employed in the corporate office as well as the home office.

Those who need it, from top management on down, should receive training to be efficient at the keyboard. Much software and hardware is underutilized because people don’t know how to best utilize it.

You should also avoid distractions and encourage others to do so, whether from producing ornate presentations and memos, reading and forwarding e-mailed jokes, or engaging in nonbusiness Web surfing. On the job, guidelines can be more effective and morale-building than prohibitions.


Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway . He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or http://www.reidgoldsborough.com.

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