Business & Finance
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8/25/2006
06:40 PM
Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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Down To Business: Hey! Who Are You Calling Mature?

Mature is not a compliment. I remember the first time I was called mature, in a parent-teacher conference. Made Mom and Dad smile, made me feel like a big weenie. Hardly the daring, fast, tough self-image I carried around in my deluded mind.

The tech industry can relate to my third-grade pain. Mature is a persistently common description for the IT industry since the dot-com bust. It's code for slow at best, doddering and wheezing at worst.

Yet look at what's happening right now, just in these dog days of late August when everyone's allegedly been on vacation. This is an industry full of surprises, shake-ups, upstarts, and screw-ups. Sure, there isn't easy growth for companies across the board, but this isn't an industry consolidating gently into that good night. Just look at what the industry has been up to:

Surprising comebacks: Sun's the most interesting company in technology right now. Not because it's doing everything right, but because its comeback is both substantive and fragile. That sound you heard last week wasn't thunder, it was Sun execs chest-thumping after IDC said Sun passed Dell for the No. 3 spot in server revenue for the second quarter, thanks to a 15.5% rise in server sales. Fragile? The company credits success in large part to "legendary" research, yet must cull those ranks as it lops 5,000 jobs.

Audaciously ambitious startups: RPath, spun up by a bunch of Red Hat IPO winners, is trying to convince software vendors to prepackage a Linux operating system along with their applications. The idea is that it'll be the perfect size and function for a particular use, and the app doesn't have to be rewritten for every different system it runs on.

Bafflingly bad mistakes: Apple joined Dell in the laptop battery recall ranks, bringing to nearly 6 million the total of Sony-made batteries being pulled back. Actually, this is one place I thought we had very mature technology. It sure seems mature, in that we haven't seen enough new approaches and features to reshape what we can do with battery-powered electronics. (Bursting into flames is new, but I'm not sure you can call that a feature.) Hopefully, these failures will give way to much needed innovation, because the growth opportunity for better batteries is there.

Sniping rivalries: Isn't it great when two wildly successful companies like Microsoft and Google kick around each other's products? It's the natural result of the pressure of a wide-open, undeveloped marketplace. In this case, it's the coming competition over desktop collaboration tools--who's going to help the everyday worker effectively share words and figures across cyberspace? This is a market that won't sputter out like the "browser wars" did or devolve into a ho-hum monopoly like Office. There's tremendous room for feature, price, and strategy differentiation. This turf's truly up for grabs. (See the whole story, In Depth: Google Aims At Microsoft Office's Weak Spot With Desktop Suite.)

Consolidation: It's usually the surest signal of maturity--old companies buying young ones, two old companies lurching together. But look at what IBM's up to with its recent buying spree, including its plan to buy Internet Security Systems announced last week (see p. 26). This isn't about buying market share and rolling up software maintenance revenue. IBM is trying to blur the line between business software and services to an extent that no one yet has. The company's slow-go revenue numbers are a big reason this industry gets tagged as mature. But old man IBM has some very fresh approaches. And like any interesting strategic move, it still could fall flat on its face.

All this hardly sounds like an industry that's mature and settled. And this isn't a baby boomer learning to surf, or me putting racing stripes on my maroon Ford minivan. These aren't pathetic attempts to gloss over long-lost vim. They're proof that there's plenty of life and surprises left in this industry. Settling down? No, it just took a breather.

Chris Murphy,
Senior Executive Editor
cjmurphy@cmp.com

Rob Preston will return next week


To find out more about Chris Murphy, please visit his page.

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