The future is in customers' hand

The mobile phone, Sony Discman, camera and television represent the future of IS.

Not because of their size, price, neat features or primary functions, but because they will be - well within five years - the primary interfaces between the customer and information services.

Consumer electronics and business computing will converge because:

1) People hold those devices in their hand and use them where and when they want.

2) They are, or soon will be, IP devices that will rely on digital technology, much of which will be wireless.

3) They are as easy to use as an automated teller machine.

4) They allow IS to begin solving the basic problem of its enterprise information technology platforms: that distributed computing is the antithesis of customer-natural computing.

It's the last reason that counts most. Fundamentally, corporate computing has been driven from the centre of the company out. Our legacy infrastructures begin in the data centre, are pushed out across the corporate geography and from there go to key suppliers and then out to the customer. The phrase "distributed computing" captures the history.

The customer is at the end of the infrastructure chain. This corporate technology isn't natural in the way that using a phone or fax machine is.

Consider the Nokia 9000I. It's a combination digital mobile phone, fax machine and a full (but slow) Web browser. In other words, it's a natural-to-use laptop. Add missing bandwidth - which is why it's currently so slow - and it's a full-service communications and information tool that amounts to a mobile office.

The browser is rapidly moving toward being the equivalent of an ATM: a basic customer interface. And like the ATM, it will be everywhere. Most important, it's the first general-purpose IT interface we've ever had that doesn't require training. Nor does any consumer electronic device require complex installation. The infrastructure is just there and taken for granted, as is the electrical network.

Just imagine how IS would have exploited the opportunities of re-engineering, groupware and intranets earlier this decade if we had fully mobile tools that were lightweight, already familiar to ordinary folks and required no installation or complex support. Have you ever heard of a Discman or mobile phone help desk in a company? How different the road warriors' world would be if we had the next generation of Nokia 9000s or PalmPilots in our hands?

Heidegger, the philosopher known for impenetrable prose, coined the phrase "tools at hand". He did so to capture how, in our everyday life, we work with tools that are natural to us. When you use a hammer or ride a bicycle, you don't think about how you know how to use it. PCs are rarely tools at hand in this sense, and simply calling them user-friendly doesn't make them so. You're always aware that this is "technology".

What are, and will be, the IS customer's tools at hand? I listed four archetypes as examples. I selected the Discman because it's becoming clear that Sony's overall strategy is that its tools at hand for its customers will use IP to access entertainment, personal and community interactions, and electronic commerce.

Sony has stacked up patents in data compression and IP-related and wireless technologies during the past few years, and its SonyNet is the principal rival to America Online in Japan. Nokia's talking about the mobile office. Sybase is positioning for "Occasionally Connected Computing", making it easy to connect away from your desk.

Silicon Valley is showing 1- to 2in displays with the resolution of a 17in monitor; those aren't intended for desktops. I've seen a 1in camera prototype that will attach to, or be part of, any of the wireless tools at hand. And, of course, WebTV is already an IP device that's a television.

The issue for IS isn't the specifics of such devices, but the wonderful opportunity to start from the customer tools at hand and work back from there. So how about spreading your own and your kids' personal electronic bits and pieces out on the table and asking, "If we add IP to these, what could we offer in terms of customer service, business process innovation, information access, service and product support, groupware, electronic commerce and intranets?"