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Ubiquitous Computing and the Role of the CIO

Underpinning these changes – and therefore the promise of ubiquitous computing – is cloud computing

We're living in the world of ubiquitous computing. Yes, it's finally here. After 20 years of waiting, we can all take satisfaction that the benefits ascribed to ubiquitous computing are, or will be, ours.

But what does ubiquitous computing mean for citizens of this new world and for the people who will help bring it about? To think about this, I'll first need to be specific about what I mean by ubiquitous computing.

When comparing computing applications in a "then" and "now" fashion, you can see a veritable journalistic story of change. The "who," "what," "when," "where," "why" and "how" of a well-written story are all present.

  • Who - We are becoming known specifically by our actual real-life identities in all aspects of our computing life.
  • What - What we are doing is being assessed not just through our explicit actions, but in context, and it's being performed at such an exact level of detail that it feels personal.
  • When and Where - Our online life is becoming our real life, not because it consumes a lot of time, but because the lines have blurred in both time and space enabled by real-time, anywhere computing and the "Internet of things."
  • Why - Essential aspects of our lifestyles, including who we meet, what we do, when we do it, etc., are now dependent on these capabilities. For many of us, we can't imagine not having these benefits.
  • How - Finally, it's all being done because of the triumph of the virtual over the physical. Most aspects of our life, except those directly related to sustaining "physicalness," have virtual equivalents.

With all of these changes comes a profound impact on the opportunities available to businesses and the expectations of their customers - and these changes aren't just in certain industries. Marc Andreessen said as much in his Wall Street Journal essay "Why Software is Eating the World." These business opportunities and customer expectations intersect at, in and through (pick your preposition) the applications developed to exploit the reality of ubiquitous computing. The world of application development is undergoing the most profound changes it has experienced since the age of distributed computing began back in the 1980s.

Underpinning these changes - and therefore the promise of ubiquitous computing - is cloud computing, which is much more than simply "virtualization." Cloud computing is changing the way applications impact our world on a daily basis, and these changes have only just begun to impact the way we live. Over time, I believe these changes will be momentous.

To make the point, I'd like to consider a comparison between the cloud and the printing press. Why the printing press? Because I see parallels between the status quo prior to the advent of each technology (printing press and cloud), the initial approaches and impacts related to the adoption of the technologies, the radical change to underlying societal constraints these technologies enabled, and the subsequent widespread changes that ensued (or in the case of the cloud, will likely ensue).

Let's summarize the path of the printing press first. The printing press provided a fundamental new way to publish printed material, resulting in an upheaval of the economics of the publishing industry.

The "one buyer/one scribe" approach to publishing a book was superseded by an ability to mass-produce. However, this capability wasn't an immediate benefit for all. Publishers needed to invest capital upfront to establish the mass printing capability and produce the printed books. And they had to do this without the assurance of a market for what they were printing. Costs per unit went down, but only at scale (this should already be sounding familiar to those in IT). Finally, consider what happened to the scribes after the printing press was widely in use.

In addition, as was already mentioned, legacy printed material (i.e., books), were the first focus for this new capability. This certainly had a huge impact on the availability and cost of books and ultimately the market for books. But to say that lowering the cost of books was the primary contribution of the printing press would be a huge mistake.

New styles of communication (e.g., the newspaper, which took approximately 160 years to emerge) were among the first unplanned benefits. The bigger consequences, however, are the revolutions in communication, knowledge, literacy, and the subsequent economies that developed. In many ways, modern society is an unplanned result of the printing press because the printing press dramatically improved the economics of the distribution of information.

So too might be the story of the cloud.

Cloud computing changes the existing relationship between applications (the information) and infrastructure (the means to distribute it). Cloud-based applications enable the ubiquitous computing-driven world described above.

But the economics of building large-scale public clouds depend on upfront investment and developing different market dynamics. Initial usage is aimed at improvements in costs to operate legacy applications. There are winners and losers as the new technology takes its place as a broad optimization of the prevailing processes that came before it, namely applications operated on dedicated hardware.

Like the printing press in its day, the interesting part is yet to come. Clouds are the mass publishers of ubiquitous computing. They are radically lowering the cost of distributing information by making it possible to leverage information within the world as we encounter it, rather than within relatively limited circumstances. Thanks to cloud-based applications, our daily experience can be augmented by "who, what, where and when" information. The full breadth of this impact has yet to be felt.

Quite in contrast to the changes brought on by the printing press, this radical change will happen in a relatively short period of time. While it is happening, the stewards of the current application portfolios (like the scribes of another time) need to make some choices. The road is already being paved by successful cloud-based businesses. The cloud enables new application types and new business models, but who will lead the enterprise forward?

Taking advantage of these opportunities will, to varying degrees, depend on the insights and the leadership of the corporate CIO.

It is often the CIO who sees the potential and has the means to realize it. As enterprises are reborn around these new capabilities, it is the CIO who knows how to mechanize the changes. But for many CIOs, this is a new role that will involve considerable personal change. To step into a proactive leadership role as opposed to a business reactive role, the CIO must have vision, clout, and a willingness to use them.

CIOs can't ignore the opportunity to be a leader in the introduction of entirely new business models based on ubiquitous computing. Knowing their industry, how ubiquitous computing will change it and how to leverage the cloud to bring about these changes and create competitive advantage will help solidify the role of the CIO.

CIOs who assume this type of proactive leadership role will be viewed as more than just an orchestrator of the overall corporate application portfolio. They will be recognized for their ability to enable business agility and lead the company forward through the emerging IT landscape.

More Stories By Bryan Doerr

Bryan Doerr is Chief Technology Officer at SAVVIS. Bryan provides technology leadership for infrastructure and product development, M&A support, and next generation platform evaluation.

Before joining SAVVIS, he held positions in management, software technology research, and software development at Bridge Information Systems, Boeing, and the Applied Physics Laboratory. Bryan holds a Masters Degree in Electrical Engineering from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland and a Masters Degree in Information Management from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.

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