Cloud Computing: The Coming IT Cambrian Explosion

7/25/08

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a huge increase in the number and diversity of IT-based devices connected to the cloud. These include mobile phones, sensors, cars, consumer electronics, medical equipment, as well as classic personal computers.

The other historical arc in which I place cloud computing is much more recent. To me, cloud computing is the natural evolution of the Internet and World Wide Web. The nascent Web of the mid 1990s enabled us to do things we had never been able to do before—like listening to a NY Mets live baseball game from my hotel room in Tokyo, or letting people around the world follow the progress of the Deep Blue chess match in real time. It so felt like magic that we did not notice how creaky the Internet infrastructure really was—slow, dial-up access; long response times; being tethered to a PC and a phone line.

Even though we are talking about a time only ten years ago, it now feels like a far away belle epoque period, which was nicely captured in IBM and Ogilvy’s award-winning e-business campaign.

Then the bubble burst, on several fronts. The speculative, exuberant dot-com economy collapsed. We found out about corporate and financial malfeasance. We experienced 9/11 and the Afghan and Iraq conflicts. The world now felt much more dangerous, competitive and complex.

Through it all, the Internet and Web, as well as IT in general, kept making progress, correcting many of their original deficiencies, and introducing Web 2.0, Massively Multiplayer Online Games, a whole new generation of sophisticated mobile devices and sensors, and ubiquitous broadband. This is the market context in which cloud computing is emerging.

No more funny web sites with flaming logos, charming old ladies selling olive oil from Italy or adorable little girls downloading the assembly instructions for their Christmas bicycle presents—all really cute vignettes from our e-business-era ads. The problems we are now tackling with cloud computing, as well as with powerful supercomputers and other advanced technologies, are much more serious for business and society: energy and the environment; healthcare; learning; national security; globally integrated enterprises; emerging markets; innovation and economic competitiveness.

Finally, we need to pose the question: What are we going to do with all these cloud-delivered services?

In 1996, in the early days of the Internet’s explosive growth, people were asking a similar question about the then young and relatively primitive Internet. Lou Gerstner, who was then IBM Chairman and CEO, gave a very nice answer to this question in a keynote speech in December of 1996, which is as relevant today as it was then.

“I’m often asked by IBM customers where the Net is headed. I tell them: Clearly, connectivity is important—but it isn’t the real issue. Let’s say soon there will be 1 billion ways to get on the Net. Then what? What will these connected millions do? What will they want to do? What will they value? And what will they be willing to pay for?

The answer is—all the things they do today. Buy and sell; bank; follow legislation; work together; access entertainment, earn a college degree, renew a driver’s license. In other words, they’ll want applications. Not shrink-wrapped ‘bloatware.’ And certainly not static information posted on Web sites.”

Nearly twelve years later, and with a far better Internet and overall IT infrastructure, we can do a lot more. But perhaps we can summarize the expectations we now have for those cloud services in a few words: simpler, safer and smarter.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger is Chairman Emeritus of the IBM Academy of Technology. Follow @

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