Entering the realm of disruptive technologies

25 Sep 2003

When Greg Garrison, the director of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) European technology team at Menlo Park in the UK, talks about the problems of IT facing businesses today, he is fond of quoting Yale librarian Rutherford Rogers’ memorable pre-internet lament on the sheer number of documents, books and magazines published annually: “We’re drowning in information and starving for knowledge.”

Garrison summed it up succinctly: “Everybody wants something in real-time but the problem is getting the responsiveness from the technology – broadband isn’t fast enough and there’s too much non-essential information coming our way. Look at spam for example. You talk about email as a critical business technology, yet we have to wade through the rubbish to get what we want. That’s the real challenge for IT managers today: making the most of existing resources and ensuring that the proper information gets to the right people at the right time. In this way, the way corporations structure IT needs a rethink.”

Precisely the kind of rethink that corporate IT needs is what has Garrison – who was in Dublin last week to present the keynote speech at the Info Ireland event held in the Burlington Hotel – hopping with excitement. Garrison is responsible for driving PwC’s technology researchers towards the discovery of key technologies and trends that will change businesses and our lives over the coming decades. When Garrison talks technology he paints a kaleidoscope of past, present and future systems and scenarios.

Business today is floundering in information, but is struggling to harness that information in meaningful way that would impact on the bottom line. Garrison nominated Cisco Systems as an example of a company breaking the mould. The network systems manufacturer conducts a ‘virtual close’ of its financial books every day, using the latest technology. In a post-Enron, post-WorldCom world of battling corporate fraud, this kind of system, used by Cisco since 1998, is an ideal that Garrison said regulators and chief financial officers the world over are striving to achieve. Marry this with advances in distributed server computing, a panoply of mobile devices and the advent of controversial RFID (radio frequency identification) chips to replace traditional barcodes, then the world of the IT manager is going to get much tougher. Hence, Garrison said, the interest in new financial reporting technology standards such as XBRL (extensible business reporting language), an electronic format for simplifying the flow of reports between software programs (Garrison’s counterpart in the US, Eric Berg, in recent weeks described the move to XBRL as more significant than the transition from pen and paper analysis of financial information to the use of spreadsheets).

“IT is about to go through the most fundamental shift in its relatively short history within the next five years. The backbone will be distributed servers or grid computing networks that will work in the same way as utility networks, upon which thousands of networked devices, not just PCs, ranging from mobile phones to smart dots, RFID tags to digital dust, will feed information in a structured, simplified way,” Garrison argued.

Many of these trends are already happening – grid networks are currently being used to measure everything from weather research to cancer research and atomic research. RFID tags are being championed in the US by Wal-Mart and despite shaking beginnings over consumer privacy, most retail items will sport intelligent chips that not just carry information but can report information back to the original producers. Smart dust or tiny chips are being incorporated into the paint of new cars so that in the event of a car theft, thieves would be unable to find or remove the original manufacturers’ mark, thereby making car theft and subsequent resale more difficult.

“We are on the cusp of an era whereby the power of supercomputing currently enjoyed by Cray and Intel will become a utility that can be enjoyed by the average corporation, and eventually, the average computer user,” Garrison predicted. “By 2012, more than two thirds of the earth’s population will have mobile phones…People will be carrying polymer bendable computer screens that could function one minute as a portable newspaper, the next as a television. Voice recognition applications will have become more mature.

“These movements are resulting in a rush of new applications. The mobile phone as we know it has changed from a simple voice product to incorporating voice, text messaging, internet, gaming and camera technology, and most of next year’s new crop of devices will come with video recording and replay functionality.

“Already the advent of virtual communities on the internet and a growing dependence on text messaging is having a cultural effect in our lives,” Garrison concluded. “You only have to look at the summer craze of flash mobs [Flash mobs are projects involving large groups of people that are mobilised by email]. Some people pointed to them as ridiculous, but recently the gathering of a giant flash mob effectively brought down the Philippine government. Watch the children; watch the military. These groups have been and will be the source of new technology revolutions. We are entering the realm of disruptive technologies.”

By John Kennedy

Bob Semple (left),partner, PwC global risk management solutions Ireland, pictured with Greg Garrison,director, PwC Menlo Park Europe at Info Ireland