PC era giving way to 'contextual intelligence,' say top IT execs

Computerworld Honors Program recognizes visionary IT projects and their leaders -- who have strong views on tech's future

WASHINGTON -- When Silicon Valley's chieftains say we're entering the "post-PC era," they aren't just referring to the PC. According to the post-PC theory, tablets, smartphones and other devices are also on the verge of irrelevance.

For sure, the explosion of new types of devices will continue. People will still line up for the next big, shiny thing.

But the importance of any one type of device is already declining as personal information, contacts, photos and files move to the cloud.

"If all my data and applications are on the cloud, why do I need a PC -- why do I need a Hummer to go to a Whole Foods store?" said Tarkan Maner, president and CEO of Wyse Technology in a keynote address Monday at the Computerworld Honors Program ceremony here.

The Computerworld Honors Program recognizes visionary applications of information technology.

Over the next decade, Maner said he sees the unfolding of "contextual intelligence," which delivers Google-like answers to questions while simultaneously trying to know who you are, where you are, what your likes and dislikes are, and what time frame you're operating in. "Contextual intelligence" also puts information in the context of social network connections, he added.

"This is going to change our lives," Maner said.

Another speaker, Paul Maritz, president and CEO of VMware, said he's been privileged to live through the entire PC era that spawned still-formidable companies like Apple and Microsoft. "It's somewhat bittersweet to realize now that this era is coming to an end," he said.

The emerging era, Maritz said, "is all about how we sort, comment on and rearrange" streams of information flowing to and from users. "This era is going to have as big an impact as the PC era," he said.

The technologies receiving this year's awards were focused on shaping the future of the tech industry.

A major theme was controlling energy use.

Allstate Insurance won the achievement award in the environmental category by doing something that few other companies have done: It secured the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED Gold certification for its new data center.

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is an internationally-recognized certification system for eco-friendly buildings.

Anthony Abbattista, senior vice president of technology solutions at Allstate, said the company has cut its data center energy bill by over 50% by adopting innovative facility designs, reducing the number of data centers it operates from five to two, and using virtualization technologies.

Prior to embarking on the project, Abbattista said he had to demonstrate to the business side of the company that the approach made sense.

"I kept the business case in front of us," said Abbattista. In doing so, he said, "we changed the company's view" of the importance of green approaches.

Similarly, Duke University, which won the leadership award in the innovation category, is using a tool developed by SAS Institute to track energy usage and discover greenhouse gas hotspots.

The technology has not yet been fully deployed, but it shows the potential to monitor all the university's energy utilization and adjust settings as needed to get a carbon-neutral environment, said Tracy Futhey, vice president of IT and CIO at Duke. That goal could be reached in just a few years, Futhey added.

Among the projects that were nominated for Computerworld Honors awards was one undertaken by the Canadian National Railway (CN) that's still in progress. CN is working with vendor HCL Axon to develop a SAP module that would improve scheduling for its train crews.

The railway has 120 years of history governing what has become the "extremely complex" process of managing its crews, said Alan Capes, director of IT business development at CN.

Capes said the goal of the latest project is to improve the work/life balance of train crews, and to enable crew members to access scheduling information through mobile devices like smartphones.

In another project that received a nomination, Kipp Bertke, IT manager for the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities, oversaw the development of a system built from scratch in-house to replace a paper-based system used by 90,000-plus caregivers.

Although his project didn't win a top honor, Bertke said that the initiative encapsulated his view on leadership -- leading a team "to the potential of what they can do, versus just leading them to a certain spot."

IBM's World Community Grid, which gives researchers access to donated supercomputing time, won top honors in the collaboration category. The Community Grid is the world's largest virtual supercomputer, said Dion Rudnicki, vice president of science and civil government at IBM's federal global business services unit.

The most memorable moment of the night came courtesy of Ramon Llanos, chief of the Electronic Warfare Systems Ground Branch at the U.S. Army Research Development and Engineering Command Communications Electronics Research Development and Engineering Center.

The warfare systems group won top honors in the safety and security category for a system they built that jams radio-controlled roadside bombs, preventing detonation.

As he took the stage, Llanos, started singing "God Bless America."

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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