New trick, old dog

They’re risky, they’re lucrative; sometimes they’re even glamorous. Individuals and corporations have won and lost fortunes, enterprises have risen to triumph and slunk into shame and ridicule on the back of them. They are emerging technologies; but should we buy in to the mystique?

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By  Eliot Beer Published  November 13, 2006

|~||~||~|They’re risky, they’re lucrative; sometimes they’re even glamorous. Individuals and corporations have won and lost fortunes, enterprises have risen to triumph and slunk into shame and ridicule on the back of them. They are emerging technologies; but should we buy in to the mystique? Take a few examples, current today. First, there’s radio-frequency identification (RFID). Hailed for some time now as the ‘next big thing’ in IT, RFID has singularly failed to catch the public’s imagination, except as a bête noir in many countries, thanks to its association with remote tracking and identity theft. Then there’s another radio technology – WiMax. This is now starting to emerge, as viable systems appear on the market and standards are finalised. But there are still questions about business models (see the 3G debacle for operators, or the continuing challenge to make Wi-Fi hotspots pay), as well as regulatory concerns around the world. Finally, there’s thin clients. In one form or another, the thin client principle has been around for decades – from the dawn of mainframe computers with dumb terminals, to the sleek, almost-invisible boxes of today. But again, thin client uptake has remained flat – the big surge of demand never came. For network managers, these are possibly the three most prominent emerging technologies today (although feel free to disagree). But what’s significant is that two of them are decades old, and there’s an argument for describing WiMax as an incremental rather than a revolutionary technology. Part of the problem comes down to semantics – many would argue that true ‘emerging technologies’ only exist at a theoretical or experimental level, and are as far from the market as it is possible to be. For the vast majority of enterprises, these technologies are of no practical interest whatsoever. Instead, emerging technologies for enterprises are those appearing on the market – unfortunately, they are often promoted as ‘bleeding edge’. But truly revolutionary technologies are few and far between, and arrive on the market only infrequently. The reality is the above technologies are much blunter than research into cyborg implants, for example. This gap between promotion and reality can turn useful technologies into high-tech whipping boys – various sections of the media, egged on by vendors and interest groups, take their turns to hype, praise, question and ridicule new technologies on the market. The end result is general disillusionment and apathy among end users. All of this is well described in various hype cycles, from analysts such as Gartner; these come complete with descriptions of the “Peak of Inflated Expectations”, the “Trough of Disillusionment” and the “Plateau of Productivity”. Of the above technologies, only RFID currently features on the hype cycle – plummeting down towards the Trough. WiMax was present on the last cycle, but seems to have disappeared for the 2006 version for reasons known only to Gartner. But what is a 60-year-old technology like RFID doing there in the first place? The reality, in this case, is that the technology has not changed substantially, but the processes and infrastructure around it have – this is what enables many of the dramatic applications promised by RFID vendors. The same is true of thin clients – the principle is unchanged since the day someone wired a greenscreen and keyboard to a corporate mainframe, but developments in servers, networks and software have all made a return to the model feasible. Does this mean these technologies don’t have the potential to shake up the business? Of course not. But the perception around what may be a fairly mature technology can make or break it – thin clients have continually suffered from dismissal because of this. IT professionals need to accept there is almost nothing deserving of the hype some of these technologies are subject to. And at the same time, they should be prepared to ignore aphorisms about old dogs and new tricks.||**||

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