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2010: The Year the Cloud Rolled In

December 16th, 2010

It’s pretty commonly understood that corporate computing has gone through three principal phases: centralized computing first, then the PC Era, then the age of the network. We could easily fit Enterprise 2.0, cloud computing, and lots of other recent developments into the network phase, but I think we’d be missing something if we did so.

It became clear to me as I watched the digital economy in 2010 that we had passed a tipping point and moved into a new age of technology use. For lack of a better term, let’s call this the Cloud Era. But this age is about much more than the migration of infrastructure, data, and applications up into the ether (even though, as I and many others have argued, this is a huge and exciting development). The Cloud Era is about the cloud, and also about three other fundamental trends in computing that became unmistakable in 2010. These are:

Social Computing, (or Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, social business, or whatever else we might want to call it). Emergent social software platforms are here to stay; they’ll be part of the fabric of our personal and professional lives from now on. Over the past few years, some very clever technologists have rolled out varieties of digital connective tissue that satisfy our deep urges to communicate, form networks, express ourselves, keep in touch with others, play games, and get work done.

Some of these have been stunningly successful. Facebook has more than 500 million active users. 25 billion tweets were sent in 2010. Groupon, a 2 year old company, turned down a $6 billion acquisition offer. And so on. These examples show how much we want to follow E.M. Forster’s century-old advice: “Only connect!… Live in fragments no longer.”

Technology Delight. We now expect the hardware and software we use to be appealing, intuitive, and powerful, all at once. Remember when you needed to be a master of Boolean logic in order to find what you were looking for on the Web? When most user interfaces were about as welcoming as a tax form? When user experiences called to mind Job’s experiences?

You might remember them because they were the norm until pretty recently, but advances like Windows 7, the Google search box, and the iPad are rapidly changing our expectations. We used to anticipate a fair amount of frustration when we used technology. Now we expect at least a bit of delight. This is a big shift, and one that should make us happy. In fact, our technologies might make us too happy. Because they’re both appealing and social, they’re addictive. The panel I moderated at the 2010 Boston Book Festival left me a little shaken. William Powers, Nick Carr, and Eric Haseltine all agreed that today’s technologies are so compelling that we can get lost in them for hours, drifting in The Shallows instead of thinking deeply. Technology delight is a fantastic development, but we should keep in mind the dangers of too much of a good thing.

Scientific Organizations. We sit on truly astonishing amounts of data, and have massive computing horsepower with which to analyze it. This means we can more rigorously test more ideas and hypotheses than has ever before been possible. We don't have to rely so heavily on conventional wisdom, lore, abstract theories, or HiPPOs (the Highest Paid People in the Organization). Instead, we can rely on the tools of the scientific method — data, analysis, rigorous thinking and hypothesis testing, experimentation, simulation, and so on — to understand the state of the world, link cause to effect, understand what will work, and make better decisions.

2010 saw computers that play Jeopardy! well and cars that drive themselves down busy city streets. These are triumphs of the scientific method. I’m not worried that computers are going to become self-aware and rise up against us, but I would be worried about a company whose leaders thought that their deep experience and keen intuition were better guides than any box programmed by pencil-necked geeks. Step by step, in domain after domain, the geeks are inheriting the Earth.

None of these trends is just a blip, and none is close to running out of steam. And as I look around companies and talk to their leaders, I see that most organizations are only just beginning to understand and exploit them. This implies a great deal of both opportunity and risk in the years ahead, with tons of innovation and more intense competition. Entering the Cloud Era should be a central part of the strategy for companies that don’t want to be left behind in 2011 and beyond.

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