Every once in a while, you get to see what you once wished for come true. Less frequently, you get explicit advance notice that it’s going to happen. In the last couple of weeks, both of those things happened – the technology industry changed and I was given a heads up.
Trying to change large iconic corporations from the inside is almost futile until they need to change. In an industry like technology, there’s a mythology about change. The myth is that change is continuous and ever-present; the reality is that things largely remain the same until change in unavoidable and often a matter of survival. I learned this at Microsoft 10-15 years ago and at IBM 5 or so years ago. At Microsoft, I advocated things like smart mobile devices, online content stores and a few other things. At IBM, I advocated for the Cloud, in-car tech and a few other things. Now the time has come for many if not all of these changes.
Yesterday, Microsoft announced its intention to purchase Nokia’s handset & services business units only a week after long-timer Steve Ballmer announced his forthcoming retirement. This adds substance to their announcement last month of becoming a devices and services company, despite many false starts in that direction over a decade or more. The impact and meaning of these announcements are all being widely discussed. One of my old buddies at Microsoft gave me an informal warning only days before any of this happened. One day, we’ll all know and understand what this all means. For the moment, it means huge change.
A few weeks ago, Amazon beat IBM in a public procurement exercise for the CIA’s Private Cloud. Amazon was more expensive by a half, yet they still won. IBM appealed and their case is moving along the process (update: IBM has given up). What astonished me about this case was the CIA’s comment that Clouds “auto-scale” and there was more confidence in Amazon’s offering than IBM’s in this regard. Elastic scalability is an essential characteristic of a Cloud. I expected not only that IBM would know that but that they could do it and demonstrate that to a valued customer. One of my old buddies at IBM discussed this with me and later negotiated his exit from the firm. What that means down the road is still a matter of debate. I never thought I’d see IBM come anywhere near losing a big deal to Amazon. In fact, Amazon is crushing all its competitors in the Cloud.
It seems that Apple – 90 days away from bankruptcy in 1997 – and Google (founded in 1998), have risen to redefine an industry. They rose from their much more humble places over the last decade or so to reinvent whole industries. Together with their near-end supply chain partners – Samsung, Foxconn, Pegatron and others – they stand titans of the tech business where IBM, HP, Microsoft and others once stood. In last year’s Fortune magazine’s Global 500, only Apple & Samsung Electronics were in the top-20 rankings. The giants of yesteryear have all fallen into the middle rankings.
That one set of companies replace another as leaders in any industry is nothing new. That this set of now-giant corporations have so quickly and completely relegated the titans of the last quarter-century to saving themselves through reinvention is rare. I was fortunate enough to work with IBM during their transformation in the early 1990s – quite an experience. The scale involved this time is extraordinary – the numbers and dollars in play are extreme: billions of people, hundreds of billions of dollars. I’d say I’ll never see this again in my lifetime.
So, my industry has changed. I’m trying to find my place in this new order. Hopefully, my good fortune will hold up going forward as it has for the last 3 decades or so.