Although Jeff Wacker looks more IT manager than mad scientist, the futurist for services giant, EDS, spends his days looking past the nuts and bolts of IT to what's coming down the road. It's not something those caught up in the day-to-day of the business have the luxury of doing.
When asked what will be the next big thing to fuel IT, Wacker unveiled a recipe: "The next big thing always requires three things: a pent-up need; a technology that's in existence; and a spark, a killer application that makes legitimate the technology to fill that need."
He noted that in the early days of computing, the machines had to go from vacuum tubes to transistors in order to become the next big thing. At that time, the need was for computational capabilities.
In a business environment that was becoming international, people just couldn't keep up anymore. Computers were the technology, but the transition to transistors on the hardware side and a common operating system on the software side were the sparks that made it the next big thing of its time.
BIRTH OF THE PCThe next big thing to follow computers, Wacker said, was the move to eight-bit processing in 1973. That was the technology, the need was for departmental processing projects and the killer app was a spreadsheet program known as VisiCalc, bringing programming capabilities to the masses. The personal computer was born.
The most recent big thing was the Internet; the need was global communications and the killer app was the Web browser. Each change, Wacker noted, was a 16- to 20-year cycle.
"The first half of the cycle is investment; the second half is integration. They create fortunes, and they destroy fortunes," he said. "Before 1956, EDS didn't exist and IBM was a typewriter company. Microsoft didn't exist before the PC. Now there are fortunes being made by Google, Amazon and eBay and they didn't exist before 1991."
Wacker predicted 2008 would be the start of the next cycle, with venture capitalists looking at mid-2007 as the launching point for a host of new capabilities and technologies.
MODEL FOR SUCCESSAnd what's that next big thing going to be? With a greying workforce and a skills shortage fueling the increasing automation of IT processes, Wacker said simulation modelling and prediction technologies would be the next major technology shift.
"The computer is the tractor of the 1900s. Nearly 99 out of 100 farmhands lost their jobs when the first tractors came in," he said. With the increasing automation of business processes, as well as the consolidation of hardware infrastructure driven by trends like virtualisation, Wacker said the cost of an IT failure was becoming increasingly high for business. In turn, that is fuelling the need for complex simulation modelling technology to identify potential problems so they can be rectified before they occur and hurt the business.
"We've got this whole world of predictability that is coming online," he said. "Most companies have a cause-and-effect model."
The technology fuelling this shift will include the next-generation architecture of multicore processors, with the parallel processing capabilities they enable offering the computing power necessary to run complex simulation programs. This will also mean massive amounts of data will be required and generated, enabled by new holographic and crystalline storage technologies.
THINKING SMARTERThe key, Wacker said, will be getting contextual information rather than historical information. not 'I sold five umbrellas this time last year probably sell five tomorrow', but rather 'it's going to rain tomorrow, therefore I'll probably sell more umbrellas, so I should put them on display'.
Whacker also said the coming shift toward utility computing would be the first step toward a model of brokered IT service delivery.
"A broker will find you [enough] computing power for the next 13 seconds. Everything that has gone commodity has been connected, source market, through a broker; that's the cheapest of making a connection between a provider and user.
"They'll provide value-added services in the process of guaranteeing [the service]. We're talking with a lot of companies that have this their plans."
This model of IT delivery means a massive consolidation of major IT service providers won't be necessary, as the brokers will fill the role integrating different service providers into one package for the customer, Wacker said.