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Mathias On Mobility: The Infocentric Era

Our columnist says that, as IT resources and applications move into the cloud, the computer no longer matters--only the information does.

It's 2010, and that inspires thoughts about what's next, what the key strategies should be going forward, and how we can continue to use IT for cost containment, competitive advantage, and enhancing the bottom line. All of these elements are critical as we exit what has been, for almost everyone, a very painful recession.

As an entrepreneur and small-business owner I'm always optimistic about the future, but it's safe to say that the business climate will continue to place an ever-greater emphasis on cost/performance for some time.

As a direct consequence, more workers will be mobile; the office will continue to become an abstraction. And everyone's dependence upon timely access to information, communications, and other IT resources, no matter where they might happen to be, will continue to grow. Advances in wireless technology were profound in the last decade, but the next 10 years will be remembered as the era where we all became, for lack of a better term, truly location-independent.

In short, the transition over the next few years will be to what I like to call the era of infocentricity. In the early days of computers, it was all about the computer. Mainframes lived in big glass houses, cost vast sums of money, and were assigned primarily menial tasks like payroll. It was all very complex, machine-specific, and very exciting. This was the compucentric era -- the computer mattered.

As mainframes evolved into minis, a new trend emerged. Information was moving closer to the user, and computers took on new roles. The invention of the microprocessor and the LAN led to the PC and the client/server architectures, which remain the norm today.

But the PC and the LAN no longer really matter. Rather, users care about the applications they have access to. These include primarily office suites, browsers, and the occasional custom, enterprise-specific tool, but the application-centric era is now well established -- so much so that many IT managers look no further. New PCs show up every few years, the network gets an upgrade, but the rate of change has slowed markedly.

Or has it? It's very likely that all of those mobile users have a wireless handset today, and the trend there is towards smartphones, many of which look remarkably like PCs in terms of architecture, implementation, and facilities. Apps are all the rage, and firms like Apple use essentially the same marketing pitch for handsets that worked so well for PCs: buy me, I've got the most apps.

Yet something profound is happening, Apart from games and a few other apps, most of those apps are really front-ends for applications which are essentially Web services, or otherwise running in the cloud. The real issue is formatting for the small screen, not local execution. So apps aren't really as bound to devices as is the case with the PC.

That's what the info-centric era is really all about -- moving IT resources into the cloud, and enabling access for authorized users on a very broad range of devices, from PCs to a wide variety of otherwise incompatible handsets. The computer no longer matters -- only the information does.

There are real cost benefits here as well. Write once, run anywhere comes to mind, but we'll also see users selecting (yes, they'll own them) the most appropriate device for the job with no additional requirements placed on IT. I can even see borrowing someone's handset, using smartcard-based two-factor authentication, doing what I need to do, and then handing the device back with no concern about security. It's all about the information, not the device. The PC isn't dead yet, but, well, you get the idea.

Info-centricity is a direct consequence of mobility. If you believe, as I do, that mobility is now essential to business, and that even a netbook gets pretty heavy after a while, info-centric IT is likely to be the most important trend of the coming decade.

Craig Mathias is a Principal with Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile advisory firm based in Ashland, MA. Craig is an internationally recognized expert on wireless communications and mobile computing technologies. He is a well-known industry analyst and frequent speaker at industry conferences and trade shows.

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