Mad Dog 21/21: Plane’s Peeking
March 3, 2008 Hesh Wiener
In computing, even the industry leaders can get hit with surprises coming from angles they never dreamed of. Sometimes these new ideas substantially change or extend the world of computing. These disruptive developments add new dimensions to information processing. And it’s often very hard for the established leaders to understand what is emerging before their eyes. This is a situation much like the one at the heart of Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, a short, witty novel about mathematics and Victorian society written by Edwin A. Abbott, a theologian and scholar. Ballmer, Palmisano, and you ought to give it a quick read.
Steve Ballmer has to decide how the company he runs responds to the business built on search engines, which made Google a company that some people think has grabbed the torch of mindshare leadership from Microsoft. Google got to the top in searches by beating Yahoo, which has surrounded its search engine with a diverse portal, and by staying ahead of Microsoft Live, which has been trying to catch both Google and Yahoo for a while with unsatisfactory results. Right now, Microsoft’s search strategy comes down to “If you can’t beat ’em, eat ’em,” as it looks for a way to acquire Yahoo.
Google is not just the top dog in search, but also a contender and possibly the leader in what is called cloud computing. Among other things, cloud computing means offering applications via the Web that are alternatives to similar functions that can be performed on a user’s computer. Web-based email was the first of these to become huge, with Microsoft’s acquired Hotmail a major player, but these days cloud computing seems to be more about Web-based word processing, spreadsheet creation, and presentation authoring. It has cousins in the form of Web sites that hold photo albums and the like, providing a service that is a mix of storage and distribution. The nature of the service mix on these album sites varies, and as this is a young concept, it’s too soon to say whether one of the participants will emerge to define what will become a segment leader.
Sam Palmisano didn’t make IBM into a company led by services; his predecessor, Lou Gerstner, did that. Palmisano didn’t bring IBM’s PC business, disk manufacturing business, or printer business to their end games, either. Nevertheless, he is the IBM CEO whose job it is to lead the company out of its desert of reduced diversity in manufacturing and, possibly, before he retires, entirely out of manufacturing.
IBM emphasizes that its future lies in services and software. While this may be the case, IBM is still the world’s top builder of large servers. It is vertically integrated when it comes to enterprise computing, whether on System z mainframes, System p Unix variant boxes, or the System i proprietary midrange line. IBM starts by making its own chips and ends by installing complete solutions.
Despite its size, power, and versatility, IBM has been a very modest participant in developments that lie outside the edifice it has built on a foundation of what is still properly called traditional data processing. IBM encourages and supports open source computing, but only recently has it offered an open package of its own that stands to put it on the map where Linux, Apache, MySQL, Firefox, and Thunderbird can be found. IBM’s offering is its Lotus Symphony suite, and the company still seems somewhat unsure of what to do with this package, which has the potential to become a mindshare and market share leader. IBM’s services offerings have not yet grown to encompass cloud computing, but its corporate interest in emerging Web-based technologies is quite strong. When it comes to seeking a bright spot in cloud computing, IBM seems to prefer expressing itself through involvement in Second Life, with its elite audience, rather than projects that get the interest of the hoi polloi, and a few cloud computing efforts at a scattering of universities around the globe. And that’s as much as any other system provider is doing.
Neither Microsoft nor IBM has had an easy time spotting important innovations that arrive from outside the dimensions of their empires. And why should anyone expect otherwise? Both are very keen observers of the worlds they have grown up in, worlds in which they are so large that at times it seems they build them all by themselves, although that it not quite the case.
In Flatland, the tale’s narrator, the eponymous A. Square, describes his two-dimensional realm in considerable detail, and, by discussing a dream, also shows that he imagines what life is like in one-dimensional Lineland. In that dream, the King of Lineland thinks Square’s suggestion that there is a dimension in space that the King cannot see but might possibly imagine meets with derision. But when Square’s clever grandson subsequently tries to get Square to conceive of a three-dimensional world, Square doesn’t do much better than the King of Lineland, at least not at first; only later does Square have an epiphany.
At the time, IBM was more worried about not losing out to Microsoft again the way it lost the race between OS/2 and Windows. IBM might have later realized that not acquiring Netscape (or building an equivalent of its own) was a more severe loss than it might have experienced had it bought and then loused up the imaginative maker of browsers and web servers.
Both Microsoft and IBM missed the clues when search engines started to take off. Both let AltaVista gain power and respect without stepping into the arena. The next thing anyone knew, Yahoo and some others players were big businesses. After that, the bright ideas came from Google, which saw that searching as a business was going to be based on a lot more than lists of keywords. Searching, as Google and eventually all the search players realized, was about the way the Internet saw itself as much as it was about content analysis. Google’s insight, which added a new dimension to the Internet as a business, was that destinations that were more popular had more potential value, and if they set out to monetize page views and clicks, it was that measure of value that would provide an attractive marketing proposition.
Today, Microsoft understands how Google works, but this is apparently not enough for it to make its search engine the segment leader. Yahoo, which does not have Microsoft’s wealth, is also better than Microsoft at the search game, at least as far as web traffic data show. IBM, which could still get into the game, is nowhere to be seen. This is surprising, because even now, even with Google looking so strong, it is possible for a new player to get to the top. Google has done just about everything it can in the way of search engine technology and the infrastructure to support it. That’s the point where some new idea, perhaps from Google itself, but more likely from elsewhere, can come in and change the nature of the whole business segment.
It might even be possible for IBM to invent or acquire a company that upstages Google, even as Microsoft contemplates going after the G spot by buying Yahoo and pumping it full of money.
The development that seems to have every one of the top firms in high tech puzzled is cloud computing. There are a number of big players in Web-based email, including Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. But a segment that is still much smaller seems to be getting much more attention, and that is the use of Web-based productivity applications.
Google made a big splash when it bought Writely about two years ago and it’s apparently made the system, now called Google Docs, which offers Web-based word processing and spreadsheet creation, run pretty well. What Google hasn’t done, it seems, is put a dent in sales of Microsoft Office. Neither has it had any clear impact on the free or pay-only-for-support productivity suites such as Symphony, OpenOffice, or AbiWord. In fact, Google may have inspired others to put more effort into Web-based applications; this kind of software is hyped as part of something called Web 2.0. Among the places to find online office type applications are Zoho, AjaxWrite (for use only with Firefox at this time), ThinkFree (with a name IBM’s lawyers might not love), and gOffice for use with an iPhone.
Because the next big thing to come along hasn’t–or if it has, nobody’s really spotted it–IBM, which was upstaged by Microsoft, which was in turn upstaged by Google, could leapfrog the younger and livelier players. IBM has a lot of what it might need in place. It has an excellent set of productivity applications that are built to be used by people acting on their own or as part of corporate collaborative teams. It has related server technology to allow public or private hosting of services related to Symphony. It has the biggest services business in the world and a strong urge to build an even larger empire in this segment. And it has the cash to buy a search player if, as it might turn out, the Next Big Thing turns out to need the basket of technologies that Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft have. Moreover, IBM’s thin client mentality, which has for years been a disadvantage in the marketplace, might once again turn out to be an asset. IBM might, if it studied its past, discover its future.
Edwin Abbott Abbott, who wrote Flatland in 1884, rose to academic prominence in part because, some 14 years earlier, he produced Shakespearian Grammar, a book that looked back to the language of Elizabethan England in a way that provided not only an understanding of those bygone times, but also a point in the Victorian consciousness from which the past might be seen in useful perspective. Flatland steered readers in the very opposite direction, away from the past of Euclid and Newton, through a present that included the geometries of Riemann and Lobachevsky, and toward a future that ultimately would include Einstein’s relativistic universe.
The problem for all the industry leaders, the thing that might stand in the way of IBM’s leap over its younger rivals, Microsoft’s conquest of Google, or Google’s hope of extending its franchise into a new generation if not dimension of computing, is that truly innovative ideas, when they first emerge, may seem like heresies to the established powers.
When A. Square tried to express his understanding of higher dimensions he didn’t end up a hero. On the contrary. He was sent to prison.