Overrated, Underrated 1

The tech industry is filled with overhyped technologies and underappreciated ideas. Great concepts like electronic medical records have to build traction. Conventional wisdom, like there's an IT skills shortage, sometimes turns out not to be true. It's not always clear how these things are going to pan out in the long run. In that spirit, InformationWeek offers the most overblown and underestimated technologies, ideas, and trends of the past 12 months.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

December 16, 2005

7 Min Read

Avian flu

Paper medical records

Mainstream media coverage has scared more hypochondriacs into thinking they already have avian flu than the number of people overall who worry about a real-life medical threat that millions face every day: paper medical records that get lost, get misfiled, and are otherwise inaccessible in an emergency or during routine care.

Plenty has been written in the past year about the federal government's push to get E-medical records for most Americans within the decade. But the issue hasn't caught the general public's attention. Most people don't realize that an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 deaths occur each year because of medical mistakes that might have been avoided with the help of electronic medi- cal files.

Until people understand that filling out forms on a clipboard is a potential health hazard, doctors will continue to get more queries about bird flu than whether patients can go online to check on their lab test results and share their medical histories with specialists. The former could become a matter of life or death; the latter already is.
--Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Privacy policies

Privacy protection

The ongoing leakage of sensitive personal information from enterprise data stores belies the corporate party line, "We care about your privacy." Practically every privacy policy posted online begins with that sentiment, but too few companies back the words with sufficient action.

Certain industry segments--health care and finance in particular--have legal requirements to take security seriously. But most companies get more credit than they deserve for protecting customer information. Look at all the well-publicized losses and thefts of customer data in the past year alone. In 2005, more than 125 security breaches have been disclosed, potentially affecting more than 57 million people, according to the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center. Health-care and financial companies are well-represented on that list. The biggest cost is the macro effect--consumers have become distrustful. A Consumer Reports WebWatch study this fall found that more than half of those surveyed had stopped giving out personal information online.

Too many companies make promises they can't keep when it comes to protecting customer data. Those that take security seriously--and have earned their customers' trust--can't be overrated.
--Thomas Claburn

Network security

Windows security

Remember the good old days when security threats meant simply having your Web site defaced, your E-mail corrupted by indiscriminate worms, and your network flooded by brute-force denial-of-service attacks? Today, hackers are less interested in notoriety and more interested in money, and as a result they're sneaking into your applications.

Buy all of the firewalls, intrusion-prevention appliances, and barbed wire you want, you still have to review pages and pages of false positives and close calls before you can come up with any meaningful information about the security of your network. And even though companies have done a pretty good job of securing their perimeters in the past year or two, it often isn't enough against the new attacks on applications that are part of the more-sophisticated efforts to steal business and customer data.

So, as software vendors find their apps under attack, who should they look to for security guidance? How about Microsoft, the company that introduced "Patch Tuesday" into the IT vernacular. Microsoft's transparency when it comes to finding, reporting, and fixing vulnerabilities isn't perfect, but it has come a long way.
--Larry Greenemeier

On-demand software

Customer options

Once upon a time, vendors who delivered software as a Web-based, on-demand service promised an end to the software industry as we know it by offering low-cost, subscription-based alternatives to expensive packaged software with ongoing maintenance fees. Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce.com Inc., provider of on-demand CRM software, popularized the appealing concept with his "No Software" slogan.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the on-demand model: It turns out that one size doesn't fit everybody and that customers want options when it comes to buying--or renting--software. Traditional software vendors have joined the on-demand game as a way to attract companies that could never afford to buy their applications. Other vendors, among them open-source CRM upstart SugarCRM Inc., have introduced both on-premises and on-demand versions of their software. End result: Customers benefit from more choices.
--Tony Kontzer

Skills shortage in the United States

Tech-worker shortage in India

The big tech players--Cisco Systems, IBM, Microsoft, and the like--frequently decry the lack of available technology skills in the United States and often urge the government to ease restrictions on H-1B immigrants. Come again? Almost daily, InformationWeek is deluged with E-mails from unemployed programmers asking why they're on the dole if there are so many jobs going wanting. There doesn't seem to be a shortage of IT talent, only a shortage of cheap IT labor, and that's what has those companies in an uproar.

At the same time, big vendors going offshore to India are finding that the unlimited supply of eager, talented, willing-to-work-for-grain computer-science graduates is a bit of myth. Yes, salaries are much lower than in the United States. But companies operating in India, including local ones such as Infosys Technologies, Tata Consultancy Services, and Wipro Technologies, spend a lot of time and energy time stealing each other's employees--and that's quickly driving up salaries. It's the dot-com boom all over again, Indian style.

"There's a lot of employee turnover [in India], and we weren't interested in that," says Martin Mellon, director of development at applications vendor ASG Software Solutions. The company chose Northern Ireland over India for its offshore development work.
--Paul McDougall

Silicon Valley's imminent demise

Overseas R&D

You've read the predictions: Silicon Valley will choke on its own traffic congestion and soaring housing prices. The valley can't serve as an incubator indefinitely. But with each prediction of the valley's demise, early Apple Computer backer and retired technology marketer Regis McKenna grins and adds another trophy to his collection: "Why Success Is Choking Silicon Valley" from BusinessWeek, March 1980; "It Was Fun While It Lasted, But The Party's Over In Silicon Valley" from the San Jose Mercury News, July 1985; "The Party's Definitely Over For Silicon Valley," USA Today, November 2001. Somebody forgot to tell Google, eBay, and other young companies that call the valley home. The critical mass of brains, money, and skills in the region should keep the innovation machine rolling for many years.

But the valley won't be the only place for technology innovation. In the past year, Intel said it was investing $1 billion in India, followed by Microsoft pledging $1.7 billion to make that country one of its R&D hubs.

Junfu Zhang, research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, points out that Silicon Valley got its start when IBM came to San Jose after World War II and founded three research labs that continue their work to this day. Other manufacturers such as Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Sun Microsystems located their early R&D in the valley, leading to the synergies that prompted many technology startups to locate there.

The same pattern is happening in China and India. Silicon Valley has succeeded, in part, because people build connections and relationships as well as companies. Now those same people are moving into these new markets, making investments and connecting with entrepreneurs. That, along with Silcon Valley's traditional advantages, will become part of what keeps it vibrant.
--Charles Babcock

Illustration by John Ueland

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