President-elect Barack Obama’s plan to build a Google-enabled government began modestly this week with the new Change.gov Web site, which includes the means to apply for a job in the new administration.
One of the people this administration plans to hire: a CTO to manage federal IT. The person selected will be the nation’s first chief technology officer.
The CTO position doesn’t sound exciting, based on the job description, which may well have been copied from an IT Management 101 textbook. It says the job of the CTO will be to lead IT initiatives at federal agencies and “ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.”
Paul Strassman, a former CIO at NASA and the Department of Defense’s director of defense information, said what the administration has to do first is define its management issues and information policy and then the technology will follow.
“The question is, What are the objectives that [Obama] is trying to achieve?” Strassman said.
One thing that Obama does want is what has been called a Google-enabled government. That involves improving the transparency and access to the vast oceans of government data, in part, by moving the data into universally accessible formats. Many federal agencies have put data online but use different formats.
And who will be the CTO to lead this effort? The media rumor mill has cited just about every big name in tech, including Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who met with Obama today as a member of the new administration’s economic advisory team; Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer; and Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy.
Among the people on the transition team helping Obama select a CTO is Sonal Shah, head of global development initiatives at Google, and Julius Genachowski, co-founder of LaunchBox Digital, a Washington-based firm that helps start-up businesses.
Whether someone on the level of Ballmer or Schmidt would give up their day jobs for the frustrations of dealing with federal agencies is doubtful.
The White House may control the IT budget, but the federal government agencies have their own CIOs, management, methods and turf. That limits the power of any federal CTO, said Dave Farber, a professor of computer science and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and former chief technologist at the Federal Communications Commission.
“Government agencies can drag their feet when they are being pulled in directions they don’t want to go,” said Farber.
An example of how complicated relations with the White House can be: When Farber was at the FCC during the Clinton presidency, he said he was invited to a meeting with then Vice President Al Gore. FCC officials initially told Farber not to go, and “that the White House cannot tell you to show up there, and we’re an independent agency.”
But when the message was addressed to him as a professor, Farber said the response from FCC higher-ups was, “Good — go, tell us what’s going on.”
A federal CTO will function more like a facilitator – someone who can set a general direction, said Farber. But it will be critical for the person in that position to have access to the president if he is to have real authority, he said. Obama’s appointment will also need a lot of technical credibility and have the ability to coordinate among agencies.
Coordinating and working with various semi-independent agencies is something Karen Evans, as well as her predecessors, has done. Evans, currently considered the de facto federal CIO, has an official title of administrator of the Office of Electronic Government and Information Technology.
She has used her role to push agencies to standardize, increase online capabilities and improve security. Sometimes that means striking at the right opportunity.
In 2007, the White House used the possibility that some agencies might move to Windows Vista to insist on standard security configurations for Vista and XP, and required that software vendors ensured that their products were shipped with those configurations. “If we don’t take and seize upon this opportunity to standardize, a thousand flowers will bloom, and we’ll be back to where we were,” said Evans in an earlier interview.
Big moves in mobile
There may be no way to know how America and the world will change when Barack Obama begins his four-year term starting Jan. 20.
But we can see how mobile technology will change.
Think of what has happened in mobile technology during the last administration. When George W. Bush was re-elected four years ago, the world had never seen the iPhone, the netbook, 3G, Blu-ray, the Amazon Kindle or Twitter. Back then, Facebook was for college students, Treo was the best smart phone (and couldn’t run on Windows Mobile).
Of course, the president has little to do with all this innovation.
Still, it’s a meaningful way to mark time and take stock of how our culture is being changed by the most personal of personal technologies.
Because the rate of technological innovation always accelerates, we can expect gadget transformations during the next four years to advance even further than during the last. Here’s what you can look forward to during Obama’s first term.
Everything gets smaller, and everything smaller gets better. Laptops have already surpassed desktops in sales. Within four years, desktop sales will slow to a crawl while mobile computing sales will soar.
Netbooks will go totally mainstream and offer an experience that approximates current high-end, full-size laptops. People will use netbooks like laptops and cell phones like netbooks. Cell phones will both capture and display high-definition video.
Mobile social networking will be baked right into everything. Your cell phone will use multiple technologies, such as GPS, tower triangulation and Wi-Fi network identification to constantly pinpoint your location.
Social networking tools will always tell you when friends are near and always give you location-relevant search results, weather reports and real-time data.
Netbooks will be free. Tiny laptops will be given away as incentives to get people to buy other things.
Banks will give them away instead of toasters. Wireless carriers will give them to you as part of your wireless plan.
Everything will have mobile broadband. By 2012, 3G will be the slow mobile broadband technology, and the better phones and wireless plans will be running at 4G speeds, which will approximate home DSL.
Mobile broadband über alles. The ubiquity and performance of mobile broadband will push Wi-Fi to non-mobile uses, such as for businesses and home networks. For mobile computing, everyone will have very fast connectivity through their cell phone carrier’s data network.
And everything will use it. Digital cameras, outdoor security cameras, your wristwatch, your in-car GPS – and your car itself – all these things and more will communicate with the world via cell phone data networks.
E-books will challenge paper books. Amazon.com will dominate with future Kindles, but the biggest alternative will be reading on high-resolution cell phones. The idea of reading on paper will become thought of as a quaint throwback to a bygone era, and used mainly by old rich people, especially for newspapers and magazines.
Live TV will become a thing of the past. Everyone will watch TV either in “clip” form on cell phones or high-def DVR recordings on their real TV. The use of live streaming content online and on cell phones will rise, and the consumption of live TV will decline. Eventually, people will forget that TVs used to be live and online media used to be asynchronous.
TV will become like music. Instead of getting the whole show (like you used to get the whole album), you’ll watch TV segments a la carte.
Tablet PCs will work like the iPhone. The new iPhone-like desktops will be available for very deep-pocketed users, and applications will be limited.
But tablet PCs, led by Apple itself, will have iPhone-like multitouch user interfaces and find broad acceptance. Remember CNN’s John King and his “Magic Map” during the election? Tablet PCs will work like that.
Cell phones will eat more gadgets. Stand-alone media players and GPS devices will go the way of the dodo as all cell phones handle these jobs brilliantly. Digital camera sales will start declining as camera phone quality improves.
The mobile industry will be unrecognizable. Apple will dominate and compete mainly with Android-based phones. Palm will die.
RIM, Motorola and Nokia will become also-ran companies because their respective core competencies will be commoditized and marginalized. Microsoft will be an also-ran in consumer mobile, but will do well in the enterprise.
Videoconferencing will go mainstream. Most high-end cell phones will have a second camera on the front, so users can look at who they’re talking to on screen while the camera beams their own visage to the other caller.
Futurists have been predicting this since the ’30s, and companies have been working on it since the ’50s. It will finally happen when Apple puts a second camera on an iPhone sometime during the next two years.
The line between camcorders and digital cameras will be gone forever. You’ll take video, and each frame of that video will be an ultra high-definition photograph. For digital stills, you’ll be able to just browser your video and pick the frame you want.
Booting will get the boot. Look for instant-on to sweep the netbook market, then the notebook, then desktop markets. No more waiting!
We’ve adapted pretty dramatically to technologies during the last four years.
The question is, with the evolution of mobile and digital technology accelerating, can we keep up and adapt to the radical transformations that will take place during Obama’s first term?
Yes, we can.