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Friday, October 29, 2004

Challenge Of IT - Conquering Complexity

The Economist has an Information Technology Survey up that I highly recommend. The first article in the survey is Make it simple , about how unnecessary complexity prevents technology from being used to its fullest, or sometimes from being used at all. John Meada at MIT is researching to keep computing simple.“It is time for us to rise up with a profound demand,” declared the late Michael Dertouzos in his 2001 book, “The Unfinished Revolution”: “Make our computers simpler to use!” Donald Norman, a long-standing advocate of design simplicity, concurs. “Today's technology is intrusive and overbearing. It leaves us with no moments of silence, with less time to ourselves, with a sense of diminished control over our lives,” he writes in his book, “The Invisible Computer”. “People are analogue, not digital; biological, not mechanical. It is time for human-centred technology, a humane technology.” Greg Papadopoulos, chief technologist at Sun Microsystems, Ray Lane, a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers,Chris Capossela, the boss of Microsoft's desktop applications -all of them agree that complexity of computers is to be tackled for growth and better usage.
The economic costs of IT complexity are hard to quantify but probably exorbitant. The Standish Group,has found that 66% of all IT projects either fail outright or take much longer to install than expected because of their complexity. Among very big IT projects—those costing over $10m apiece—98% fall short.Gartner, another research firm, uses other proxies for complexity. An average firm's computer networks are down for an unplanned 175 hours a year, calculates Gartner, causing an average loss of over $7m. On top of that, employees waste an average of one week a year struggling with their recalcitrant PCs. And itinerant employees, such as salesmen, incur an extra $4,400 a year in IT costs, says the firm.Tony Picardi, a boffin at IDC, comes up with perhaps the most frightening number. When he polled a sample of firms 15 years ago, they were spending 75% of their IT budget on new hardware and software and 25% on fixing the systems that they already had; now that ratio has been reversed—70-80% of IT spending goes on fixing things rather than buying new systems. According to Mr Picardi, this suggests that this year alone IT complexity will cost firms worldwide some $750 billion. Even this, however, does not account for the burden on consumers, whether measured in the cost of call-centres and help desks, in the amount of gadgets and features never used because they are so byzantine, or in sheer frustration. Why the urgency now to tackle this?
The most obvious change is the IT bust that followed the dotcom boom of the late 1990s. After a decade of strong growth, the IT industry suddenly started shrinking in 2001. In early 2000 it accounted for 35% of America's S&P 500 index; today its share is down to about 15%. “For the past three years, the tech industry's old formula—build it and they come—has no longer worked,” says Pip Coburn, a technology analyst at UBS, an investment bank. For technology vendors, he thinks, this is the sort of trauma that precedes a paradigm shift. Customers no longer demand “hot” technologies, but instead want “cold” technologies, such as integration software, that help them stitch together and simplify the fancy systems they bought during the boom years.
This article interlinks to all of the other articles in the survey, which discuss additional topics such as feature creep, the “invisibility” of ubiquitous technology, and using “the Mom test” to determine simplicity. A lot of thought-provoking points here about the state of the industry, and things we should keep in mind if we want to be successful moving forward.
Steven Milunovich, an analyst at Merrill Lynch, another bank, offers a further reason why simplicity is only now becoming a big issue. He argues that the IT industry progresses in 15-year waves.
-In the first wave,(1970s and early 1980s) - companies installed big mainframe computers;
-The second wave - they put in PCs that were hooked up to “server” computers in the basement;
-The third wave,(breaking now) -beginning to connect every gadget that employees might use, from hand-held computers to mobile phones, to the internet.
The boundaries between office, car and home will become increasingly blurred and will eventually disappear altogether. In rich countries, virtually the entire population will be expected to be permanently connected to the internet, both as employees and as consumers. This will at last make IT pervasive and ubiquitous, like electricity or telephones before it, so the emphasis will shift towards making gadgets and networks simple to use.

UBS's Mr Coburn adds a demographic observation,saying that some 70% of the world's population are “analogues”, who are “terrified by technology”, and for whom the pain of technology “is not just the time it takes to figure out new gadgets but the pain of feeling stupid at each moment along the way”. Another 15% are “digital immigrants”, typically thirty-somethings who adopted technology as young adults; and the other 15% are “digital natives”, teenagers and young adults who have never known and cannot imagine life without IM (instant messaging, in case you are an analogue). But a decade from now, Mr Coburn says, virtually the entire population will be digital natives or immigrants, as the ageing analogues convert to avoid social isolation. Once again, the needs of these converts point to a hugely increased demand for simplicity.
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