IT doesn’t matter, part 6

This is the sixth installment of the article “IT Doesn’t Matter.” Part 1 is here.

What about the vendors?

Although IT vendors continue to promote their products as “strategic,” their own business strategies seem to belie their marketing pitches. They are adapting themselves to compete in a world where IT hardware and software are largely commodities.

Just a few months ago, at the 2003 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Bill Joy, the chief scientist and cofounder of Sun Microsystems, posed what for him must have been a painful question: “What if the reality is that people have already bought most of the stuff they want to own?” The people he was talking about are, of course, businesspeople, and the stuff is information technology. With the end of the great buildout of the commercial IT infrastructure apparently at hand, Joy’s question is one that all IT vendors are now asking themselves. There is good reason to believe that companies’ existing IT capabilities are largely sufficient for their needs and, hence, that the recent and widespread sluggishness in IT demand is as much a structural as a cyclical phenomenon.

Even if that’s true, the picture may not be as bleak as it seems for vendors, at least those with the foresight and skill to adapt to the new environment. The importance of infrastructural technologies to the day-to-day operations of business means that they continue to absorb large amounts of corporate cash long after they have become commodities – indefinitely, in many cases. Virtually all companies today continue to spend heavily on electricity and phone service, for example, and many manufacturers continue to spend a lot on rail transport. Moreover, the standardized nature of infrastructural technologies often leads to the establishment of lucrative monopolies and oligopolies.

Many technology vendors are already repositioning themselves and their products in response to the changes in the market. Microsoft’s push to turn its Office software suite from a packaged good into an annual subscription service is a tacit acknowledgment that companies are losing their need – and their appetite – for constant upgrades. Dell has succeeded by exploiting the commoditization of the PC market and is now extending that strategy to servers, storage, and even services. (Michael Dell’s essential genius has always been his unsentimental trust in the commoditization of information technology.) And many of the major suppliers of corporate IT, including Microsoft, IBM, Sun, and Oracle, are battling to position themselves as dominant suppliers of “Web services” – to turn themselves, in effect, into utilities. This war for scale, combined with the continuing transformation of IT into a commodity, will lead to the further consolidation of many sectors of the IT industry. The winners will do very well; the losers will be gone.

Part 7

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