People 'n' Issues

Not tech, but social and business revolution under way

November 2nd, 2015
Former Microsoft number 3 and ex-head of VMWare, Paul Maritz shared his journey and insights with South Africans at the recent MyWorld of Tomorrow conference

Veteran industry executive Paul Maritz opened the recent My World Of Tomorrow  technology expo and conference with a technology vision of businesses that is not about the technology itself.

In his keynote address at the Sandton Convention Centre, he said that we were experiencing not a technology revolution, but a social and business revolution.

Maritz currently heads Pivotal, a landmark company created through the combined forces of GE, EMC and VMWare. It was born for a new purpose: to create the next generation of operating systems that will power our future. Those platforms are vital, as Martiz set about to explain.

He first illuminated his own journey: as a fresh-faced varsity graduate from South Africa, Maritz left for the US to engage with the new world of PCs. It was the start of the Eighties and mainframe computers were being replaced by new maverick innovations from companies such as Intel. Maritz wanted in, kick starting a career that took him through giants such as Intel and Microsoft – where he was number three behind Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. He would later move to EMC, soon heading up VMWare, then Pivotal.

This gave Maritz a good sense of history and a clear vision of where we are going. He looked at how the Eighties and Nineties were spent creating digital equivalents for paper-based processes, leading to the development of applications such as Microsoft Office. But now it is time for the next step:

“Those applications are not going away – they are going to stay with us for a long time to come. But they are no longer where differential value is coming from. Those are not where the new business models are being driven out of. We’re moving into an era where we are now starting to tackle things that you cannot imagine in a paper-based world. There is no paper-based equivalent to Google and Facebook. We’ve had to evolve structures and architectures to allow us to tackle those kind of use cases.”

To illustrate his point, Maritz looked back at mainframes. The cost to generate enough computing power to track a computer mouse was huge. Then the desktop-style PCs we are familiar with arrived, bringing that kind of power spend to virtually zero and thus ushering in the era of graphic user interfaces.

Yet the client/server PC world has its own limitations: the power available is still dictated by the capacity of an individual machine. So if something required ten machines to do its job, it would be an expensive and rare practice: Maritz called it avant-garde development.

The world needed a new way to evolve technology – especially if it expected to match the consumer-driven revolution pegged by smart devices and connectivity.

“Google is actually the pioneer here. In 1998, when they set out to index the entire world’s information, they already knew that the index would be petabytes in size. If you had gone to your favourite database vendor in 1998 and buy a petabyte of capacity – even if they could have supplied it to you at the then-going prices of $1 million per terabyte – it would have cost you $10 billion. For Google that was just a non-starter, so they had to go a different route. They had to tackle their problem by ganging together lots and lots of very cheap machines.”

Google’s thriftiness sparked the new technology platforms that are increasingly driving our world today, creating new use cases and opportunities for business. By combining many machines, the power of technology has become a commodity. Like the leap to graphic interfaces, now we can tackle big data, contextual behaviour and more. One example is General Electric, a century-old company that has become the standard bearer for transforming to the new digital epoch. GE’s aircraft engines famously generate terabytes of data over one single transatlantic flight, prompting the company to wonder what value lies in all of that data. This in turn brought new opportunities, which is why GE invested in Pivotal: it wants the next generation of technology to fuel its newfound ambitions.

Ultimately all that brought Maritz’s main point to book: what we are experiencing is not a technology revolution. It is a social and business revolution, exemplified by among other things how companies reach audiences.

“A lot of businesses used to operate on the principle of spending huge amounts of money on broad, horizontal media-based advertising to drive the masses to them. Now instead innovative companies spend their money on building compelling, useful ways of engaging with their customers in realtime. They rather spend their time and money into building useful apps that gives information and service in context to the user.”

The maverick automobile maker Tesla counts as one – it uses applications and in-car software to extend the experience well beyond simply owning a vehicle. Uber, the favourite example of this revolution, also uses apps and analytics to improve customer engagement. If you ever pondered why a food retailer wants you to swipe its shopper card, that’s towards gathering trends for improved service. All of that is being run on what Maritz called the third platform: the world of cheap, powerful parallel computer systems.

But to access this new world requires companies to shift their mindsets. Technology is becoming inseparable from business, at least if that business hopes to keep engaging the new consumer.

“One of the big changes many companies have a lot of problems with is to realise this is not an IT problem. This is a business problem. Google has an IT department, but they make sure every machine has an IP address and that’s about it. Everyone else in Google doesn’t think of themselves as IT people. They think of themselves as part of the product department. They build products. The business and technology people sit as equals around the table.”

Maritz rounded his point with a call to action for companies: “Find partners who want to do this with you as opposed to doing it for you. It will not help you if they do it all for you. At the end of the day this capability is going to be your differentiator for finding value. You can’t outsource that. If a partner says ‘No problem, just write me a cheque’, that’s a big red flag. Don’t go there.”

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