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Tech Industry

The latest revolution? On-demand spin

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the tech industry's penchant for verbal obfuscation and over-the-top claims is a bad habit when IT customers are thirsting for straight talk.

A few years ago, I was sitting in the audience when Ralph Nader stirred a bored assembly of tech executives out of their after-dinner indifference with a tart tongue-lashing. "You just make it too hard for regular people to understand what it is you're talking about," the peripatetic consumer activist and sometime presidential candidate said. Holding up a collection of trade magazine pages, he sneered as he read one undecipherable headline after another.

"Nobody can understand this gobbledygook," he said.

That got folks' attention--though hardly their assent. After all, technology was supposed to be hard: If it was all so bloody simple, you'd find every Tom, Dick and Harry hanging out a shingle along Silicon Valley's El Camino Real.

We can debate the claim, but what's not open to disputation is the technology industry's particular penchant for creating acronyms, buzzwords and verbal obfuscations, a habit that has worsened as the time line advanced from PC-based computing to network-based computing to Internet-based computing (to whatever's next).

This passion for market babble has more recently resulted in the annoying tendency of some big information technology (IT) providers to redefine whatever existing products and services in their arsenal as part of an "on demand" computing revolution.

What is on-demand computing? That depends on whom you ask.

My good friends at BusinessWeek made it the centerpiece of a breathless portrayal of Sam Palmisano's new tenure as IBM's chief executive.

"The vision of on-demand computing is downright audacious," the magazine declared. "It proposes joining all of the thousands of computers and applications in enormous enterprises, and putting them to work seamlessly and in unison--not only in-house, but also with partners and customers."

That could have been lifted from Netscape's marketing department long before the fall.

Maybe I was the dumbest person in the room, but after spending the better part of two hours with a collection of reporters listening to a senior IBM executive explain eBusiness Innovations, I felt in dire need of a mental enema.

Maybe I was the dumbest person in the room, but I felt in dire need of a mental enema.
Besides cooking up a new way to drum up more business, what was the big deal? This sounded more like another one of those goofy marketing monikers that frequently come down the tech turnpike to quicken everyone's pulse rate. (Remember Microsoft's "Information at your fingertips" campaign?)

Essentially, IBM is surrounding the former PricewaterhouseCoopers consulting business that it acquired last year with a lot of technology, such as grid computing and self-managing features, courtesy of the company's autonomic computing initiative. In this new world order, anything can get outsourced as a collection of services--from simple communications right up to grid computing--thus relieving customers of the burden. Throw in some attendant expertise in vertical businesses and voila, you've got "the future of IT computing."

Interesting, but does it constitute a revolution? IBM could just as easily have renamed it "outsourcing plus" (or time-sharing redux, where metered capacity lets customers pay for only the assets that they actually use.) The rest is all spin.

Hewlett-Packard is no less effusive about what it dubs "On Demand Solutions," but again, it's the same basic idea: Here's an alternative to traditional IT ownership and support that lets customers adjust to fluctuations in demand.

Interesting, but does it constitute a revolution?
Same goes for Sun Microsystems, which offers similar lingo about on-demand access to grid computing, terascale computing and even services for education.

You have to wonder about the wisdom of the over-the-top, we-just-reinvented-the-universe approach. It's easy to understand why so many vendors are eager to bang that drum as loudly as possible. But maybe if they just stopped talking in tongues, they'd get a better reception.

After the three years of Sturm und Drang, IT customers are thirsting for straight talk--a commodity which will always be in demand and should seep into on-demand territory.

•  •  •

Exorcising the ghost of Napster
Gone, but certainly not forgotten, Napster came to mind after RealNetworks announced earlier this week an agreement to acquire Listen.com for about $36 million in cash and stock.

Before running afoul of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Napster had some 80 million registered users. That bears repeating: 80 million registered users. But before Napster management could take advantage of those numbers, the lawsuits and injunctions took their toll, ending in bankruptcy in 2002.

Even though time ran out on Napster, the experiment still underscored the promise of online music: It was going to be digital, and it was going to be huge.

But as is so often the case, the question turned on the issue of control.

It's easy to belittle the music moguls for being greedy and shortsighted, but the reality is more complex. Music industry executives feared the implications of digital ones and zeros to their business. Not only had the Internet reduced the marginal cost of music to zero, but the potential anarchy represented by digital file-swapping threatened to cripple the fabulously profitable industry that they had built up over the course of decades.

That doesn't explain why the studios were slow to respond with anything more creative than half-measures and cynical lawsuits. Their most inspired idea was to hand Kazaa and the other peer-to-peer services a public relations windfall by forcing subscription services like MusicNet and Pressplay to mandate dopey restrictions on what people could do with music that was downloaded from their sites.

Still, it was a start, of sorts.

Along with Listen.com, MusicNet and Pressplay guarantee a level of sound quality that one would expect from a for-pay service. What's more, users don't have to worry about accidentally infecting their PCs with viruses or hidden porn files. The interfaces are slightly easier to navigate than anything offered by the underground services and won't take forever to improve.

On the flip side, it's taken far too long for the labels to find innovative ways to tap their enormous music libraries. When it comes to non-American artists, especially, selection ain't nearly what it should be. Once the RIAA kneecapped Napster, the music labels should have done a postmortem and figured out why their archrival struck such a chord with Netizens.

Instead, they started out charging customers more than $3 per download, a foolish decision that bordered on price-gouging. Was it any surprise then that few suckers took the bait? They've since come around to 99 cents per cut. (Even that price can come down further, especially when one considers that the competition is free!)

If selections improve, prices drop and the restrictions come off, that may do the trick. With the future of digital music over the Internet at stake, the labels need to start thinking big. Just the way that managers once did at Napster.