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Surviving Technology Extinction

Hey, CIOs: It's not as simple as Paperwhite versus Nook or iPhone versus Android.

Robert Adrian Hillman/Shutterstock

Quantifying the actual rate of technology change is tough. But if you live in IT, you feel it every day, with the current cycles of invention and disruption being enough to make anyone’s head spin.

In a New York Times piece called “How to Survive the Next Wave of Technology Extinction,” Farhad Manjoo recently explored the conundrum facing tech consumers; namely why, with wave upon wave of new devices and services (apps, devices, media offerings, wearables, etc.), it’s harder than ever to separate good bets from the next Betamax.

This challenge is hardly limited to the consumer, as I would argue that CIOs and IT leaders are in the same boat. Whether they like it or not, businesses now live in a world in which forces like mobile, cloud and big data have exploded the numbers of devices, platforms, data sources and solution offerings that must be connected, adopted, supported or built around. It’s hardly as simple as Paperwhite versus Nook, Nike+ versus RunKeeper or iPhone versus Android.

To further complicate matters, traditionally “safe” IT mega-vendors have fast seen their businesses eaten by mobile innovators, cloud players and historically consumer-oriented operators like Google and Amazon.

While it’s nice that large numbers of new entrants are promising better-designed, more mobile-friendly and/or cloud-hosted options for every manner of enterprise need, sorting through it all is hellish. Which of these vendors will keep pace with the rate of innovation? How do CIOs avoid betting the farm on partners that can’t stay the course?

There’s no crystal ball, but here are a few principles to ensure your bets won’t come back to bite you:

Embrace the user

Technology has gotten a lot easier to use and more efficient, largely because many companies are moving to cloud computing and supporting more mobile devices. This shift has also dissolved the conventional distinctions among business-to-business (B2B), business-to-employee (B2E) and business-to-consumer (B2C) in software and hardware.

Having seen consumer technology done right in the form of mobile apps that are intuitive, enjoyable and easy to use, we carry these same expectations into the workplace. We have no patience for the convoluted, frustrating experiences of corporate software and hardware from the near past.

CIOs must recognize the huge productivity gains of providing employees with apps that truly help them perform their jobs better — those that are simple, complete and conform to their lifestyle versus the other way around. The criteria for such a world is one in which applications run on the user’s device of choice, the user’s identity extends anywhere and data is always accessible.

Geoffrey Moore, author of “Crossing the Chasm,” locates these things at the center of the new user-centric enterprise architectures, which must protect “my content, my device, my identity.”

As Box founder Aaron Levie notes, the aim is an IT outlook where “control of information is no longer prioritized over making sure the right people can access it. CIOs who don’t empower their workforce become disempowered.”

These criteria can be used as a kind of measure for modern vendors. Do their solutions help CIOs meet these criteria for the business? And to what degree has the vendor itself embraced these criteria in its own architectural and design strategy?

Favor ecosystems over features

As Apple has famously proven with its devices and App Store, ecosystems drive innovation at a pace that even the mightiest internal R&D departments can’t match. Apple now boasts a huge, diverse ecosystem of at least six million developers (as of a year ago), driving an ever-exploding set of capabilities and services to the company’s flagship platform.

The best modern solutions find themselves at the center of a broad, diverse ecosystem as well — composed of groups like developers, as well as software and services companies. The presence of such ecosystems indicates a few important things:

  • The vendor has done a good job making its own offering easy to extend with complementary offerings. (And that they don’t suffer from the dreaded Not Invented Here syndrome.)
  • Smart, independent technical folks have vetted and embraced the solution.
  • This company has cultivated a deep pool of available skills. The more people who have built careers or businesses around the solution, the easier it is to find resources for future development or support.

In practice, a good ecosystem amounts to a kind of “innovation exchange” in which ideas and offerings can flock for evaluation, and where the winners rise to the top, regardless of source. That kind of collaboration drives better products, with more add-ons and extensions than any single vendor could ever hope to offer.

Expect openness

Most tech vendors, wise to customer concerns about lock-in, are quick to peddle their embrace of open technologies. But separating product marketing from the facts of the underlying architecture can be tricky. Plenty of vendors have come late to open standards, and their products offer little more than “shims” of open technologies on top of legacy proprietary standards.

There are a couple of indicators of true openness:

  • Interoperability: Can the solution be run with any standards-based technology (e.g., browser, app server, etc.)? If you want to move hosting from, say, AWS to Rackspace, what does this entail?
  • Active contributors: Look for companies that have committed some significant portion of their technology to the open-source community. This means more than just lobbing code into SourceForge. The real sign is a community of active contributors. For example, how many people have made contributions (features, bug fixes, etc.) to the company’s technology on collaborative development sites like GitHub?

Vendors for whom openness is a part of the DNA offer customers more than just lowered risk of lock-in. There is also the ubiquity of skilled resources, as well as the likelihood of a broader ecosystem. Openness and ecosystems go hand in hand.

From surviving to thriving

In just the past few years, we’ve gone from Web to cloud to mobile — an entirely different beast comprising not only apps, but wearables, data sources and “things” much more broadly. Picking the right new technologies out of the pack isn’t easy, but it’s also an opportunity. With systems now designed to serve users instead of the other way around, IT is no longer stuck simply managing systems, holding down costs and keeping the lights on.

As McKinsey Consulting confirmed in a recent survey, enterprises are looking to IT to lead the charge in digital innovation, harnessing cloud, social and mobile technologies to empower employees and even to open up new markets.

When it comes to the enterprise, it’s not about just surviving “technology extinction.” There’s a very real opportunity to thrive in these times of uncertainty, simply by embracing the opportunity while competitors dither.

Of course, all of that starts with placing the right bets.

Jeff Haynie is CEO of Appcelerator, a comprehensive mobile platform for the enterprise, providing a platform for IT innovation in a post-Web age. Reach him @jhaynie.

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