Everything Old Is New Again

After 23 years as a reporter–not to mention 19 years of marriage–I’ve learned to resist the impulse to shout “You’re wrong!” when somebody who’s smarter than I am says something that strikes me as, well, wrong. If I take the time to listen, I’ll usually uncover some meaning that I missed the first time.

This hard-won restraint was tested when I heard Alan Boehme, the former CIO of Juniper Networks and GE Power Systems, say that the hype surrounding Web 2.0 applications obscures the fact that there isn’t much new going on there. I’ve heard tech people say similar stuff before, and it always drives me nuts.

That’s because I’ve talked to a lot of business users who think Web 2.0 is a pretty big deal. These individuals include the participants on a panel I moderated shortly before Boehme’s remarks, at the same event.

Plus, I’ve seen the power of the tools firsthand. So when Boehme uttered those fateful words, I wanted to grab a microphone and say, “Fie upon you, sirrah.” (I often swear in Elizabethan.)

Instead, I followed up with him in the coffee line outside the conference hall, and later by e-mail and phone. During our discussions, I made the unsurprising discovery that Boehme, now an advisor to high-tech startups in Half Moon Bay, Calif., had a point–and the point is meant to liberate CIOs as they think about Web 2.0, not turn them against it.

“I’m very much a promoter and an advocate of it,” Boehme said. What he contends is that the idea of reusable services is not new, and neither are collaboration and communities on the Internet. Boehme believes these facts should empower CIOs as they adapt Web 2.0 technologies for the businesses they support.

I pressed Boehme on the changes wrought by new, lightweight apps, using the analogy of cell phones to make my case. The first mobile phones were the size of a brick, and they were tethered to a car and cost a lot to use, while mobile phones today are compact, versatile, portable and ubiquitous. The first generation of phones represented a revolution in technology; the current generation represents a revolution in usage, and that matters a lot.

That’s true, Boehme agreed. “If you talk usage, we’re on common ground,” he said. But he added that the CIO has to think along the long arc represented by those early phones, and to understand new applications in terms of familiar things like databases, search and security. All that makes Web 2.0 less challenging to accept, and that frees the CIO to think about what users can actually do with these applications.

I sometimes run into a similar perception gap when I talk about cloud computing: People say it’s just the old mainframe service bureaus in a new package. And again, they’re right at a certain level, even though the usage models are radically different. The similarities should empower CIOs to focus on the challenges and opportunities of the new wave.

The gap between technology and culture can yawn pretty wide. When people start talking past each other, it pays to slow down and figure out how both sides can come together to make businesses run better.

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