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2/15/2006
04:52 PM
Charles Babcock
Charles Babcock
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Carr: Is CIO Rocket Scientist Or Baggage Handler?

When author Nicholas Carr says open source will revolutionize IT software use, he doesn't mean it in the same sense that open-source advocates do. He's still standing by his thesis in Does IT Matter? And his answer to that question remains, no, not for strategic advantage.

When author Nicholas Carr says open source will revolutionize IT software use, he doesn't mean it in the same sense that open-source advocates do. He's still standing by his thesis in Does IT Matter? And his answer to that question remains, no, not for strategic advantage.But he sees a much larger role for open source in the enterprise software infrastructure.

To get a "yes" answer to Does IT Matter?, at least from Carr, you'd have to demonstrate that the software infrastructure was leading the company's strategy, that changes in software were changing the way the business works and improving the company's revenues and earnings. Every IT manager can point to a case where that's true in details, but Carr wants the case to be true for a period that matters. He cites, for example, the lead that the Sabre airline reservation system gave American Airlines for a generation. Despite the Internet revolution, there are few Sabre examples out there, he says. He marvels at how few. For two decades, the top IT thinkers and managers have been telling us that the CIO was leading the charge, not dragging the company's baggage wagons in the rear. Carr is still saying the CIO is dragging baggage. In that sense, his prediction Feb. 14 that IT infrastructures are moving to open-source code has to be taken with a large gain of salt. He's not congratulating open source for taking back the fortress from the infidels, as Richard Stallman would have it. Rather, he's commenting on open-source code's ability to commoditize the infrastructure and drive down to a lowest common denominator the value represented by particular pieces of software, such as the database or application server.

To be sure, he would salute open source's quality, but it is its ability to drive down costs, to establish a "good enough" alternative to the overengineered and overmarketed commercial systems that he sees as displacing the traditional IT infrastructure..

I think what Carr says is true for 75% of the companies in operation, but I disagree that technology advantage is not strategic for the remaining 25%. Within that 25%, the advantages gained through technology innovation are both worth the initial investment and last long enough for a telling effect on revenues.

But if you are a CIO and you have to acknowledge your IT organization is not leading the charge, it's only dragging baggage, then you better move to the most efficient horses out there. And those horses are the open-source coders.

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