Gartner symposium asks the big questions about world’s technological future

Day one of the 2014 Gartner Symposium saw BlackBerry and Microsoft executives give hints at their company’s future direction and interaction with governments in a world demanding of heightened security and privacy. Gartner’s analysts painted a bigger picture of the future ahead, looking at how technology’s advances can produce far more value than the world has ever realized while at the same time limiting the number of people who truly benefit. 

The digital revolution will not only transform business – it will change the world. That was the message from the Gartner Symposium held in Orlando Florida this week.

It was a message that certainly resonated with the IT community across North America. The conference was sold out for the first time in its history. There were over 8,500 delegates and more than 3,000 CIOs including a large contingent of CIOs from Canada and some interesting mentions of Canada in the content.

The first day of the conference was an “industry day” in which analysts and vendors made their presentations to specific industry audiences. Much of the message would be no surprise at all. The digital revolution was transforming every industry.

Jeff Vining, a Gartner analyst specializing in privacy and security, made special mention of Canada’s approach at both provincial and federal levels. While he gave a lot of time and description to the B.C. government’s implementation of a universal ID, his review was mixed. According to Vining, B.C.,  with a population of 4.5 million issued 9 million identity cards as part of its original rollout of a new health card identifier. That, according to Vining, showed the potential for fraud and misuse in this area. Yet the B.C. government persisted and now has a universal ID which has met with some success.

Vining reserved special praise, however, for the federal government’s Secure Key Concierge program as a world class approach to a complex issue.

Industry day also featured the oil and gas sector for the first time as a unique industry segment at the Gartner Symposium. Given the importance of this segment in the Canadian economy it had some special interest for us. The presentation was not only highly original – it brought home the importance of digital technology to a very traditional industry. We started with two analysts role-playing the future of a mythical oil and gas company in the year 2020 and looking back to show how embracing a digital strategy could change a lacklustre performer into a leadership role in the industry. Within this creative frame, the analysts made some hard-hitting points. According to their data, traditional recovery in existing reserves leaves up to 60 per cent of the oil in the ground. In newer reserves and with newer extraction methods such as shale recovery – the percentage of resources left in the ground is not known – but its assumed to be much greater than the 60 per cent from traditional reserves and recovery techniques. The bottom line? Digital technologies can play a real role in enhancing recovery if companies would only embrace them in a holistic way – using them to find new approaches and new processes.

BlackBerry, Microsoft share future visions

Another Canadian moment and a bit of surprise. BlackBerry made its pitch to a government audience. This in itself is no surprise – nor was the focus on security. Michael K. Brown,  vice president of security product management and research, made the presentation.  Brown is a real veteran of BlackBerry, dating back to the early days and he emphasized BlackBerry’s return to its original enterprise business focus. He reiterated BlackBerry’s focus on security and device management across the enterprise. But to hear the message from a veteran BlackBerry executive that the future was “not about handsets, not about technology nor about software” really brought home how profound the changes are that new CEO John Chen has brought to the organization. To anyone who hopes that BlackBerry will survive, this presentation certainly gave hope that the company was finding its way once again.

In the realm of surprises and messages we never thought we’d hear from a company, Microsoft presented their CityNext vision. Uncharacteristically lacking in “product” – this presentation was more focused on the challenges and opportunities of what Mark Day, vice president of public sector for Microsoft, called the “urban renaissance.” Day noted that by 2020, more than 70 per cent of the world’s population will have migrated to cities. This will create both a massive challenge and a tremendous opportunity. It was a refreshingly business-focused approach for a company that has tended towards a more product-centric focus. Microsoft often comes late to the party, but when it does arrive, it has had a unique knack for really capturing the “zeitgeist” and embracing new directions. It did this with graphical user interfaces, appearing after the Mac but dominating with Windows. It did it with web browsers, losing ground to Netscape but coming back from with Internet Explorer.

In a third wave, Microsoft is embracing a new vision with the four pillars of the the next wave of computing – cloud, mobile, data analytics and social. Moreover, if Day is indicative of the new direction, Microsoft is speaking with a new voice. To hear a Microsoft executive boldly state that his company wouldn’t “turn over encryption keys to any government,”  nor would they create “back doors” was strong language.  Equally strong was the assertion that Microsoft would  “not turn over data in response to a national security order.” Day promised that Microsoft would fight any attempt gain customer data.

At a time when national security issues are top of mind once again, this was surprising language. But it was equally surprising to hear Day go on to talk about Microsoft embracing “open standards” and “open data.” We can judge whether this new direction for Microsoft is sincere or if it will last. We do have to admire the way that these messages resonate with an audience that is increasingly weary of closed, vendor proprietary systems.

Reach of digital transformation goes beyond business

The theme may have been “digital transforms business” but many messages were more in line with “digital changing the world.” That the two are not mutually exclusive was driven home by an electrifying keynote by MIT Sloan professor and author Eric Brynjolfsson. Brynjolfsson had a huge audience in the palm of his hand as he described what he termed the “second machine age.”   To anyone who thinks that the we’ve seen everything, Brynjolfsson showed how technology not only continued to advance, but how it would break barriers we once thought impossible.

He showed robots that were being deployed that could not only work beside humans, but that could do jobs requiring amazing dexterity. These new robots didn’t need programming – they could “learn” by being shown a few repetitions of a task and then perform it flawlessly. Expensive? No. At a cost of only $20,000 each, these highly intelligent, adaptive and tireless workers cost an average of $4 per hour. That’s a wage that is difficult to match even in an emerging economy.

Likewise, Brynjolfsson showed how new artificial intelligence was breaking every barrier that we once imagined. There was some laughter when he described a neural network that had learned by itself to “recognize cats” on the Internet. He went on to point out that this same intelligence managed to learn by itself only a few days to spot the six markers that doctors use to diagnose cancer. When he further explained that in a few more days the same program had learned – by itself – to spot three more markers of cancer that physicians themselves had not yet found in decades of research, his point was made. Clearly, we are at a point where technology is reaching new levels at a pace even faster than the most optimistic predictions.

The implications of this, according to Brynjolfsson affect us all. In a sense, we are all richer. GDP has grown enormously in the period of this technology revolution. We are hundreds of times wealthier than we were at the time of the industrial revolution. That wealth is being created at an amazing rate. The first steam engine took 70 years to double its capacity. Under Moore’s Law, doubling every 18 months is today’s norm.   He showed how much of that wealth is unaccounted for.  Today’s smart-phone gave us all a host of products we once paid for – calculators, music players, still and video cameras and many more – all free. By his estimate this amounted to more than $300 billion of value which was not measured in GDP.

But if there is more and more wealth being created, Brynjolfsson pointed out that this wealth is not equally distributed. While many of the audience presumably knew this, the real extent and the hard data hit home. He showed that real economic standing has declined for so many skilled workers. And for those who have wealth, it’s not the one per cent, it’s the zero-point-one per cent who are amassing the lion’s share of the wealth of the planet.

Digital technology is “biased towards those that already have wealth.” It can reduce competition. Why buy from anyone else but the best product in a world where a copy of the very best software product costs nothing to produce, is perfect in each copy and is distributed rapidly at a low cost? This type of market favours dominance by a few winners.

The message for a business and technology audience? Business as usual will not meet – nor perhaps survive these challenges. We need to reinvent our economy and our approach to business in this digital revolution – new processes, new institutions and a new approach to economics.

If the first day of any conference is there to shake us up and identify the challenges that face us, the Gartner Symposium has done that – in spades.



Jim Love
Jim Love
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO of a great company - IT World Canada - Canada's leading ICT publisher.

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