Maybe We Expected Too Much from the IT Industry

The Enterprise Strategy Group’s Jon Oltsik makes an interesting observation regarding Oracle’s perplexing acquisition of Sun Microsystems.

Instead of passing judgment on whether the deal represented a smart move by Oracle — I’m still not sure what to think, though I suspect Oracle might have done this deal for defensive, wrongheaded reasons — Oltsik expresses profound sadness at the passing of Sun and of what it signified back during the heyday of the IT industry.

The second paragraph of Oltsik’s piece reads as follows:

When I started in the tech business over 20 years ago, it was extremely young and exciting. If you went for a drink after work, you would find a saloon full of folks from Digital Equipment Corp., Data General, EMC, Lotus, McCormick & Dodge, and Prime Computer all out doing the same. Much to IBM’s chagrin, high tech had been taken over by a bunch of 20 and 30 year olds in Boston and San Jose, Calif., who were going to change the world.

He ends the piece with these words:

I’ll miss Sun’s irreverence, its optimism, and its innovative spirit, but most of all I’ll miss what Sun represented, the last vestige of the golden age of the tech industry. Unlike those heady days in Boston back in the 1980s, our industry is now mature with only a few tech giants left. Cisco Systems is now building its own servers and Oracle is a hardware company. I guess we did change the world to some extent, just not the way we thought we would.

Sun was irreverent, no question, but it was always a business in an industry that gradually, unavoidably matured. Convention, predictability, and stolidness come with maturity, and so it was for the IT industry and for its major corporate players. Like the automotive industry and so many other industries before it, IT was bound to go from being a freewheeling scramble of innovation and seemingly irrepressible energy into something more culturally homogeneous and ponderous. It also was bound for consolidation.

There are fewer areas open for world-changing innovation in the IT realm than there were before. The bigger players — IBM, HP, Cisco, Microsoft, Oracle, Intel, and Google — are looking to strengthen their competitive positions as they use their vast size and resources during the current worldwide recession. Meanwhile, some companies that were big names — Motorola and Nortel come to mind — have fallen off the map, perhaps irrevocably.

So, yes, IT has changed, become older, more seriously mature. Have some of its denizens done likewise?

Like Oltsik, I am of a certain age, having been around this business for more than 20 years. I think what we thought we saw back in our younger days perhaps never existed, not objectively, anyway. I think we might have seen things through the prism of youth, refracted and brightened with an optimistic attitude, boundless energy, and a paucity of the sort of real-word experience that engenders skepticism and even cynicism.

Maybe industries are always the same — regardless of whether they’re at one point or another of their life cycles — and it’s only the perspectives of the people within them that change.

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