45 years of creative evolution in the IT industry and beyond

As Computerworld celebrates its 45th anniversary, pundits and IT executives look back over decades of change that brought stunning technological advancements -- and put more power in users' hands.

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Connected, All the Time

That we can access that data from almost anywhere is a given now, but iconic personal computers like the IBM PC came without any networking capabilities, though the Internet was more than a decade old at the time. People wanted to link those systems together, and one way they did it was through Ethernet, which was co-invented by Bob Metcalfe, founder of 3Com and a former publisher of Computerworld sister publication InfoWorld who is now teaching at the University of Texas at Austin and working as a venture capitalist at Polaris Ventures. "Let's say the Internet was born in 1969," says Metcalfe via email. "It has changed everything, and not only in computing. IBM used to run computing, and AT&T used to run communication. The Internet changed all that by 1985, [breaking up] the monopolies with open industry networking standards for PCs and networking, mainly HTML, HTTP, URL, TCP/IP, Ethernet."

The monopolies may be gone, but it wasn't until the past few years that nearly ubiquitous high-speed wireless Internet access became a given. "A few years ago, when you went to conference, you sat in the front row because you were looking for a jack. Now the jack is pervasively around you," says Robert B. Carter, CIO at FedEx. In just the past few weeks, Carter was in Malaysia, Vietnam, Europe, India, Hong Kong and Singapore. "Never did I wonder how I was going to get a connection," he says.

High-speed, inexpensive, generally available connections have made it easier for the masses to get access to information. They have also helped make technology usage widespread, even second nature. And these developments have led to entirely new demands on IT, moving it from a caretaker and guardian of systems to an enabler of new ways of doing business.

24/7 Data Deluge

Take healthcare, for example. Today, "you can access on your mobile phone your patient record, your lab results, connect to a doctor and make an appointment in a matter of minutes," says Philip Fasano, CIO at health insurer Kaiser Permanente. Don't have a smartphone? You can do all that by voice or on a PC, too.

On the other hand, FedEx's Carter says, "I have a teenage daughter who manages to run out of unlimited texting. How do you do that? The math says she sends or receives a text every eight minutes, 7 by 24." Parental conundrums aside, he says his daughter's data usage illustrates one of the major IT issues of the day: "How do you [comb] through that much data and make it useful to a business like FedEx?"

He's not the only one asking that question. "At the time I started working, I couldn't have imagined we would ever deal with gigabytes of data," says Gupta. "At Allstate, we've got almost 3 petabytes of data about different things we do with customers." He says customers now expect just-in-time information, which means Allstate IT needs to make it possible to instantly sort through those petabytes of data and zip an answer back to the user, no matter what platform is used.

When it comes to expectations, the bar will only be set higher with the arrival of systems like IBM's Watson, the Jeopardy-playing computer. "Exponential growth in computer resources [allowed] us to get to things like IBM's Watson computer," says Fasano. "We're on the cusp of being able to get machines to think as quickly as we do."

That's a huge jump in artificial intelligence. Fasano says organizations will make the same jump in what they "know" and can deliver to customers. For healthcare companies like Kaiser Permanente, he says, the combination of big data and big math will make it possible to develop algorithms for predictive analytics that support truly personalized medical care.

What Solow Paradox?

IT advances, of course, go through phases of wheel-spinning as they get absorbed, and big data is no different. Now, though, nobody doubts that big data will make us more productive. But it took a while for technology in general to deliver a productivity payback.

Ian S. Patterson, CIO at Scottrade in St. Louis, started his career in 1981 as a purchasing manager for a now-defunct 32-store musical instrument retailer. To check inventory, "we'd call the stores on a weekly basis and go through what we knew were hot items and say 'How many do you have left?' " Patterson says. Things improved a little after the chain moved from manual cash registers to IBM's electronic registers. Still, Patterson wanted daily sales reports, but what he got took a weekend and a batch process. He got so fed up that he went back to school and got a degree in MIS.

There were, of course, early groundbreaking applications, such as American Airlines' automated reservation system in 1960, which some have called the first real-time application, and American Hospital Supply's ASAP ordering system, launched in 1976 to allow hospital managers to place orders themselves. And there was Merrill Lynch's 1977 money market sweeper, which automatically pulled available funds to and from money market accounts and included a credit card and check writing, and a Walmart/Procter & Gamble partnership that in 1988 produced a "continuous" replenishment supply chain.

"Those were iconic, charismatic information systems that rendered the competition irrelevant," says futurist and Computerworld columnist Thornton A. May. "Some of us said, 'These are not rare or isolated or strange. IT is by definition a marketplace solvent. IT changes things.' "

But IT doesn't change things overnight, or by magic. For every iconic IT project, there were dozens that didn't work out. That led to a lot of spending that didn't yield improved productivity -- an "emperor's new clothes" paradox noted by Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow, who in 1987 said, "You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics." Time brought change, such as Michael Hammer's re-engineering revolution in the 1990s, and technology finally started driving productivity improvements, ending the Solow Paradox.

Patterson would be much happier as a purchasing manager today. "You're getting to the point where once I hit point of sale, I'm pretty much at real-time update," he says. "In the future, it's going to [update] once I pull it off the shelf or put it in the cart. They're going to know when I walk up to the register, and I'm going to get my receipt."

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