% fortune -ae paul murphy

The more things change

Things change - even in IT - and history, it seems, is resetting an old scene.

There's a new phenomenon on campus: an easy majority of students have abandoned laptops and now carry only a smartphone. I imagine that many still use wintel or macs in labs, libraries, or at home to do things like writing term papers - but the new symbol of coolness is an iDevice or clone, not a Dell or other PC.

In business the handheld is morphing - it's been at least 25 years since companies like Fed Ex pioneered the dedicated, radio based, handheld (and, yes, I know the US DOD had cart mounted "handhelds" in the 60s, but this is about the true handheld: small enough, light enough, and useful enough for a floor walker's use at Walmart). Specifically, it's becoming more flexible and more ubiquitous as better back office software combines with things like replaceable keyboards and downloadable customer specific code and configuration capabilities to bring this technology to much smaller operations.

Meanwhile what are the big IT suppliers doing? Oracle is building the appliance backend to all this - and the smartphone is creating huge new campus opportunities for Sun Ray- but they're about the only big player with a clear strategic direction.

Microsoft has its new Office and Windows 7 out - and the latter's both a decent successor to XP and a big success, but sales seem almost entirely limited to people who already had MS commitments: people in their 30s and 40s, not people in universities or just entering the workforce. Worse, they're repeated their own earlier mistake by hanging Windows 7 branding on their iClone and then guaranteeing that incompatibilities will develop by not sticking to Intel.

Meanwhile, Dell is apparently sitting things out while hoping its numbers will magically improve; HP has this weird dance going on with SAP - supplier of the software whose implementation nearly killed HP - and is so distracted by board level feuds, claims, and counter-claims that it couldn't line up behind a new product direction even if it could find one; and IBM, having beaten Sun via the financial markets, is waiting for the next Vax before transitioning to cell - and may be surprised when Oracle's Sun division provides one in rather less than the eight years it took last time.

Basically where we're at seems pretty simple: IBM is betting on the clock staying stopped; Dell and HP are on auto-pilot, Microsoft thinks the past predicts the future - and should soon be shipping Grecian Formula with its products :) - Apple's consumer focused strategy is working well and driving business adoption of its own down market competitors; google's commitment to free software and open standards is driving Android to early dominance among low end products; and the whole field of back-end to handheld integration for small to mid range business seems set to explode.

Forget the brand names and think big picture, big structure, and we've seen this situation before: at the beginning of the Reagan era when Unix reigned and IBM launched the PC as its forward line of defense for the mainframe. Back then, Apple and Unix lost; this time? IBM doesn't have the clout; the PC is passe; the new stuff, everything from hardware to OS and storage advances, is nearly all Unix; and November's American elections could trigger the end of the Pelosi recession -thus unleashing tremendous new demand for cheap, effective, IT infrastructure.

So what's the bottom line on all this? Blind, glowing, optimism because significant political change in the U.S. should drive an immediate jump in demand for more of whatever people have installed - and then trigger the kind of system wide infrastructure overhaul we saw in the eighties and nineties.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 25-year veteran of the I.T. consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.