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Welcome the New Century

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A sizable chunk of the world of business and business technology has spent most of the last couple of years frozen in time. Given recent economic news and the emergence of new technologies, however, a long-overdue thaw may be imminent, if not entirely unavoidable.

Welcome the New Century

In Pattern Recognition, his most recent novel, cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson suggests that the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 marked the true beginning of the 21st century. History, after all, pays little attention to calendars – it's the other way around. In the cultural, sociological, and political realm, Gibson's point is well taken. Y2K did little to change the world, while 9/11 announced the arrival of a new reality. For a number of reasons, however – the most notable being the dotcom meltdown that began as the previous century drew to a close — a sizable chunk of the world of business and business technology has spent most of the last couple of years frozen in time. Given recent economic news and the emergence of new technologies, however, a long-overdue thaw may be imminent, if not entirely unavoidable.

While the business world certainly felt the impact of 9/11, the dotcom bust that arrived like an unwanted Millennium party guest — long before the autumn of 2001— had an effect on the global business environment that only now shows signs of fading. When the bubble burst, conventional wisdom turned its back on technology. We entered a kind of holding pattern, endlessly circling while budgets were trimmed to the quick, and the innovation that defined the 90s and laid the foundation for this century took on budgetary connotations similar to those currently attached to the birthday bacchanal former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski threw for Wife #2.

This negativity toward investment in business technology is puzzling, especially in light of the current state of the global business environment, which bears absolutely no resemblance to the global business environment that existed only a few short years ago. In 1994, how did you make your travel arrangements? How did you handle personal banking? How do you handle those tasks today?

2004 marks the 15th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee's creation of the World Wide Web. By the late 90s there was no way to ignore the profound transformation that was underway. Internet use grew at an unprecedented rate. Desktop computers – at $1500 to $2000 a pop — sold like beer on free hot wings night. New business models emerged, models that have not only thrived, but have changed nearly everything about the world of business – and about the world in general.

The Web proved to be equal parts magical genie and Pandora's box. In some cases new ways of obeying old business rules emerged. In others, old business rules gave way to new rules as technology redefined business-to-business, business-to-consumer, and consumer-to-consumer relationships. As the 20th century drew to a close, a dazzling new future raced toward us, only to run out of gas. And there it sat, on the side of the road, waiting, as a different future rolled by, bringing with it a sluggish economy and a dangerous global political crisis. And around the world, businesses took this as a signal to pull in the reins.

But innovation didn't just roll over and die. Web services moved off the drawing board and into real world implementation. Someone figured out that Open Source software was not only pretty good, but also free. And at the grassroots level, the widespread adoption of various technologies signaled the arrival of yet another series of challenges to be met by those who wish to remain in business.

Broadband, wireless, and the increasing portability of computer devices changed the way people use these marvelous new machines. Wireless access provides new bait with which to attract customers to hotels, coffee shops, and even fast food outlets. (In Cleveland, Case Western Reserve University has launched OneCleveland, an ambitious program that promises to turn entire neighborhoods into wireless hotspots.) Peer-to-peer technologies have the music industry chasing its tail, and the expanding application of the concept of "on demand" will eventually see a complete reinvention of the broadcast industry.

The pieces are falling into place...

As 2003 winds down, the economy revs up. New technologies continue to dramatically change the way people (as consumers and as employees) relate to and use their computers and the Web. The approaching new year looks as if it may mark the real beginning of the 21st century we expected a couple of years ago – a future with a future.

The question is, are you ready? Is your business prepared to meet the challenges of this new future? Given the haste with which most business IT systems adapted to the environment that emerged over the last decade, the answer is probably no. Much of what passes for enterprise architecture these days is a cobbled-together FrankenSystem, held together with duct tape. This hardly describes a solid founda-tion for the innovation that will keep your business in a game where all the marbles are at stake and the players — and the rules — change as frequently as Michael Jackson's face.

Success – indeed, survival – in this new century requires a change in mindset with regard to IT. Key to this new mindset is the realization that, regardless of the specific nature of your business, software forms the foundation on which it rests. Software is a vital asset that defines both your presence in the marketplace and your ability to compete on a playing field that is increasingly subject to rapid and violent tectonic shifts. You can't control the shaking, but with the proper management of your software assets you can stay on your feet and ahead of your competition. That's a future you can bank on.

So prepare accordingly, and welcome the new century. Better late than never.

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