Business Technology: A Microcosmic View Of A Cockeyed World

Last week battered us all with hard-to-fathom images of suffering and devastation in Katrina's wake, but by the end of the week the accumulated scenes of misery, pain, and loss began somehow to feel "normal," Bob Evans says. And in the same week, our little world of business technology produced a handful of developments that were also, in a very different way, hard to fathom.
It wasn't easy for anyone last week to get a solid, tangible grasp on what was really going on in the world--what was urgent, what was farce, what was relevant, what was accurate, what should I focus on? I suspect that this week, as the devastation wrought throughout the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina is more fully understood and cleanup operations get under way, the blur of last week will clarify a great deal.

But in another sense, by the end of last week, that nonstop set of hard-to-fathom images--video clips of obliteration, photos of a major American city underwater, Skycam reports showing the ghostly shadow of a vaporized interstate superhighway, scenes of what had been a floating gambling casino now perched well inland atop a pulverized Holiday Inn hotel--almost began to seem "normal." In spite of our shock and lingering disbelief, by Thursday or Friday of last week we had all seen so many shots of billions of gallons of water where it should not be, of lives uprooted and blighted or even snuffed out, of tragic desperation and heroic courage and odious lawlessness, of $6 gasoline prices and death tolls into the thousands, that we began to think of those as ... normal. Or at least real. All too real.

But make no mistake about it. The 650 or so folks in Monterey for the High-Tech Crime Investigation Association are in complete agreement that the situation is getting worse. For every step forward the good guys take by taking advantage of new technologies, better laws, and evolving investigation techniques, the bad guys take several steps by expanding their global crime networks, monitoring IT system vulnerabilities more closely, and finding additional motivation in the growing economy resulting from fraud and identity theft.

-- InformationWeek Blog, Tony Kontzer, Aug. 30

And, as always, Americans rushed to help. Of the many ways to contribute, two of the best are the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Our thoughts and prayers are with the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives were devastated by what many are calling the worst natural disaster ever to hit the United States--with the help of their countrymen, may those people soon begin to be able to put their shattered lives back together.

While it seems trivial to turn from such a grave event to our profoundly more mundane world of business technology, some very strange things occurred in this microcosm, as if in some minor and insignificant way reflecting the otherworldliness of what was happening in the southeastern United States. A quick review for those whose minds were very likely elsewhere:

  • On Tuesday, Apple Computer--one of the slickest marketing companies in the world--began offering customers a free 30-day trial of its three Mac mini computers. Just 12 hours later, Apple pulled the promo and has offered no explanation. While I think Apple, by sheer dint of the astonishing brand equity it has established in the past few years, could today introduce a retro, vintage-1984 version of the original Mac and sell millions of them within a year at $1,500 per smiley-face, this 30-day trial that lasted only half a day just goes to show that even the mother of the iPod has feet of clay.

  • In another bizarre move by a Bay Area global brand, Gap Inc. shut down for an indefinite period two of its most popular online stores so that it can upgrade them for the holiday season. A company spokeswoman said the changes were so complex that the sites had to be closed during the transition time, in spite of the fact that Gap's overall business is struggling. Hey--I know a lot of companies are branching out into untraditional businesses, but with this sort of cavalier attitude toward online downtime, I hope Gap doesn't intend to use its new sites to launch, say, a global-currency-trading subsidiary.

  • While it's still very debatable that offshoring has made the world flat, as a certain author contends, a massive offshoring deal in the financial industry last week did indeed make the world feel unquestionably smaller. As first reported Wednesday by InformationWeek, Dutch bank ABN Amro outsourced most of its IT operations to five companies--including India-based Tata Consultancy Services, Patni Computer Systems, and Infosys Technologies--in deals that could total more than $2 billion. The bank said that it will cut 3,200 IT jobs and hopes to save more than $250 million a year over the five-year contracts. But on the same day last week, Ameritrade chief operating officer Asiff Hirji, whose company just acquired online brokerage T.D. Waterhouse, told the Gartner Financial Services Technology Summit, "It's impossible to separate IT and business strategy." Hirji also noted that at Ameritrade, IT doesn't support the business--it IS the business. So if Gap does decide to jump into the financial-services business (which no one has any reason to believe, but it makes for a good punch line), then we'd have three very different approaches: ABN Amro, which ships it all out; Ameritrade, which keeps it all in; and Gap, which doesn't turn it on.

  • And finally, Web megastar Google, the very same company that wants to put the contents of all the world's libraries online, has launched a new business: reselling advertising space in print magazines. As they say in Dutch at ABN Amro, "Go figyah."

    See you next week, and please consider taking a moment to click on one of the links above to help our countrymen in Louisiana and Mississippi.

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