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Bad Packets: Chamber's vision sells industry short

Cisco CEO John Chamber's vision sells the industry short, says this columnist.

E-mail Wes Simonds
Last time around in this column I was bluntly abusive to a significant fraction of the entire high tech industry.

I said, for instance, that in the obsessive pursuit of sheer cash Microsoft would cheerfully allow its employees to be punted in the 'nads by professional wrestlers.

I stated that Sun was governed by a despot.

I insinuated that Corel's mission statement was best approximated by random word salad of a type commonly associated with schizophrenia.

I did hedge diplomatically on exactly one point when I said that Cisco CEO John Chambers was a sensible man not given to saying and doing absurd things.

Guess which statement drew objections?

Here's a sample quote from mail I received:

"Having worked for Cisco, what gives you the idea that Chambers is sensible? In fact, he's a wind-up doll from West Virginia with professional acting training."

An interesting perspective, to be sure, and one which I've had in mind the last week as I've mulled over Chambers' address from Networld+Interop in Las Vegas.

Now, Mr. Chambers had many things to say, and on several key points, I certainly think he had his ducks in a row. For instance, there was a pervasive whiff of IPishness radiating from his concept of the future.

Chambers foretells a time when all services and all networks will converge on Internet Protocol and all pretender protocols will dry up and blow away. Obi Wan Chambers also foresees the "network virtual organization" and an ongoing increase in outsourcing and corporate focusing on core competencies. Points to John there, for sure.

But the primary focus of his speech was the importance of productivity, and the degree to which productivity issues will largely drive technology sales (which will in turn drive the recovery of the US economy).

Now, far be it from me to argue with the abstract notion of productivity. It's right up there with Chicago stuffed pizza and rock and roll on the top shelf of manifestly cool stuff.

But I think it's selling the industry short to say that productivity is what will drive the technology economy.

Productivity ultimately boils down to the efficient optimization of an existing process. The technology economy, on the other hand, has largely been driven by imagination and innovation and the appeal of radically fresh approaches to conventional problems.

We saw typewriters replaced by computers; we saw networks link those computers on a local level; we saw the graphic interface largely replace the command line; we saw the Internet provide a common conduit for linking computers, and the people using them, on a global scale.

These were the fundamental driving forces of the U.S. technology economy in the era from 1980 to date, and these forces were not solely about productivity. They were also paradigm shifts of innovation. They were inspiring, energizing, divisive, seductive, and yes, they were productive, too, but that was just the beginning of the story.

I've seen purely productive ideas fall flat on their faces many times. Consider for instance Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's pet notion of the thin client network computer circa 1997. It had a slick and comprehensive buzzword suite: distributed processing, centralized storage, vastly lower IT support overhead, lower client-side hardware costs, fewer client-side problems manifesting, and lower software costs due to shared applications. It was in short designed to allow IT departments to do their jobs with fewer resources, and was thus the very model of a more productive approach. But it never happened, because it caught fire in nobody's imagination except Ellison's.

If history is a competent tutor, it's not just sheer productivity ?- that is, incremental improvements in business technique -- that's really going to drive the future of high tech. It's also shiny new ideas.

It's the bold shots of whiskey that compel millions of people and billions of dollars, not spring water that's 2% more carbonated than it used to be.

What, as they pertain to networking, might those bold shots of whiskey be?

There are certainly some appealing contenders out there.

Web services have made, and continue to make, significant waves, though not as deeply and not as pervasively as they have generally been expected to. Grid computing (and the implicit theory and supporting technologies of massive shared storage and processing resources) is surely on the list; it seems to be achieving the escape velocity it will need to clamber up and down the Gartner Hype Curve. (I think that process has really just begun, and it'll be fun watching as grid computing takes the grand media tour from curing cancer to causing it.)

Then there's peer-to-peer and its similar concept of shared key business data without centralization of backup or management. (Don't get me started about that, as I continue to believe it's as bizarrely inappropriate as a love story in a Star Wars flick).

It's easy to foresee the dramatic acceleration of what one might call wirelessness, as last-mile problems, security problems, bandwidth problems, and line-of-sight problems are collectively resolved.

There's the ongoing application of artificial intelligence to areas such as bandwidth allocation and intrusion detection and denial of service solutions.

But I really prefer to think that the shiniest ideas of all, the ideas that really will drive tomorrow's technology economy, are as yet undreamed. I don't read movie spoilers on the Web, I don't open presents until Christmas Day, and to tell you the truth, I'm looking forward to a few surprises.

MORE BAD PACKETS COLUMNS:

Bad Packets: Misplaced mission statements

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