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Book Review: The Big Switch by Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr continues with a theory that he first outlined in his controversial 2003 article

Steve Caughey's Blog

‘The Big Switch’ elaborates on Carr’s earlier comparison of the Electricity Generating industry, at the start of the last century, and today’s Computing industry. He argues that such a move, with its massive economies of scale, was an economic necessity at the time and that today’s technological advances, combined with the same economic forces, will drive us inevitably towards a 'Computing Utility.'

In this book, Nicholas Carr (pictured) continues with a theory that he first outlined in his controversial 2003 article, ‘IT Doesn’t Matter’ (later expanded and published as his first book, ‘Does IT Matter?’) But it’s also a critique of the ‘Brave New World’ of the Web as heralded by the pioneers of the internet, the dotcom boomers and more lately by the Web 2.0 fan clubs.

‘Does IT Matter?’ Well, the answer reiterated in ‘The Big Switch’, is yes it does but not as much as the CEOs of the largest IT suppliers would have you believe. Carr makes the strong case that although IT is an operational requirement it doesn’t necessarily drive profits. Indeed, IT is increasingly becoming a commodity - as any competitive benefits gained by one company can be quickly imitated by rivals. These views have made him unpopular with many in the IT industry and he was once proclaimed “The Technology World’s No. 1 Public Enemy” by Newsweek (a badge he wears with considerable pride).

‘The Big Switch’ elaborates on Carr’s earlier comparison of the Electricity Generating industry, at the start of the last century, and today’s Computing industry. He explains how Edison delivered much of the technology and Insull the business model which eventually persuaded companies to abandon their reliance on internally generated power. Insull persuaded them to connect to an electricity ‘grid’ enabling them to draw power as a ‘Utility’ service. He argues that such a move, with its massive economies of scale, was an economic necessity at the time and that today’s technological advances, combined with the same economic forces, will drive us inevitably towards a ‘Computing Utility’.

Carr goes on to examine the social consequences of concentrating this ‘power’ (read ‘data’ for the Computing Utility) in the hands of the few, given the commoditisation of knowledge and even human relationships. Where ‘The Long Tail’ (by Chris Anderson) presented a glowing economic picture of a world full of almost infinite consumer choice, Carr warns of the dangers of a world full of ‘unbundled’ knowledge where every piece of information is of equal value and is therefore, ultimately, valueless.

I share Carr’s views of the future. Indeed, I believe IT is already in the process of transition. Whilst I don’t have the statistics to hand I’d confidently predict that the proportion of processor cycles initiated by an individual that execute remotely, (rather than on the individual’s local machine), is increasing very significantly year on year, and that the same is true of accessed data. Some of these cycles and data accesses are performed on behalf of applications running in the server room (possibly from thin clients), some are running on outsourced infrastructure, some are SAAS or mobile applications, others are networked applications such as Google search, ‘Second Life’ or ‘YouTube’. All represent small, but significant steps towards a Computing Utility.

So I enjoyed reading ‘The Big Switch’ – well written, sobering, and intelligent is my summary.

Arjuna is working to help ease this transition by building support for Agile IT Infrastructure that recognises that today’s IT is increasingly distributed within and beyond the organisation. I’ll explain some of the concepts behind our work soon.

More Stories By Steve Caughey

Stave Caughey is CEO of Arjuna Technologies Ltd, a Centre of Excellence in reliable, large-scale distributed systems building products for some of the world's leading software companies.

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