IT Investment May Be Hurting US Job Growth

The tech industry has generally enjoyed a good reputation with the public and with politicians -- unlike those "bad guys" in banking, or health insurance, or oil and gas.  However, analysis that I have done in a just-published report -- Caution: IT Investment May Be Hurting US Job Growth -- suggests that this good reputation could be dented by evidence that business investment in technology could be coming at the expense of hiring. 

Some background: In preparing Forrester’s tech market forecasts, I spend a lot of time looking at economic indicators.  Employment is not an economic indicator that I usually track, because it has no causal connection that I have been able to find with tech market growth.  However, given all the press attention that has been paid to an unemployment rate in excess of 9% and monthly employment increases measured in the tens of thousands instead of hundreds of thousands, it has been hard to ignore the fact that US job growth has been remarkably feeble in this economic recovery. 

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IBM's Watson And Its Implications For Smart Computing

Like many connected with IBM as an employee, a customer, or an analyst, I watched IBM's Watson beat two smart humans in three games of Jeopardy.  However, I was able to do so under more privileged conditions than sitting on my couch.  Along with my colleague John Rymer, I attended an IBM event in San Francisco, in which two of the IBM scientists who had developed Watson provided background on Watson prior to, during commercial breaks in, and after the broadcast of the third and final Jeopardy game.  We learned a lot about the time, effort, and approaches that went into making Watson competitive in Jeopardy (including, in answer to John's question, that its code base was a combination of Java and C++).  This background information made clear how impressive Watson is as a milestone in the development of artificial intelligence.  But it also made clear how much work still needs to be done to take the Watson technology and deploy it against the IBM-identified business problems in healthcare, customer service and call centers, or security.

The IBM scientists showed a scattergram of the percentage of Jeopardy questions that winning human contestants got right vs. the percentage of questions that they answered, which showed that these winners generally got 80% or more of the answers right for 60% to 70% of the questions.  They then showed line charts of how Watson did against the same variables over time, with Watson well below this zone at the beginning, but then month by month moving higher and higher, until by the time of the contest it was winning over two-thirds of the test contests against past Jeopardy winners.  But what I noted was how long the training process took before Watson became competitive -- not to mention the amount of computing and human resources IBM put behind the project.

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Tech Market Will See Similar Growth In 2011 As In 2010, But With Important Twists

At first glance, our forecast that the global IT market will expand by 7.1% in 2011 is right in line with the 7.2% growth we are estimating occurred in 2010 (see our January  11, 2011, "2010-2012 Global Tech Industry Outlook" report).  In fact, there are many points of similarity between the two years besides the overall growth rates, such as comparable growth rates in communications equipment purchases both years, or the US and Asia Pacific growing at similar rates of growth in 2010 and 2011.

However, there are three important points of difference that I think make our projected growth for 2011 more impressive than the almost identical rate of growth that occurred last year:

  1. Minimal rebound effects in 2011.  2010 was the year when IT capital investment bounced back from recession-depressed levels in 2009, especially in computer equipment and to a lesser degree in software.  Companies had been cutting back on purchases of servers, personal computers, storage devices, and peripherals like printers and monitors since 2007.  That meant a build-up of a lot of deferred demand for replacement equipment, which was unleashed in 2010, helping to drive 11% growth in this category last year.  Licensed software also felt some of these effects, with freezes on capital investment pushing purchases from 2009 into 2010.  Thus, in both cases, 2010 growth rates were measured off of low bases in 2009.  In contrast, the 2011 growth will reflect new demand for IT goods and services, not pent-up demand for prior years.  And the 2011 growth rates will be measured off a stronger base that reflects that fact.
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Which Vendors Have Gotten Smart (Computing, That Is)?

Thirteen months ago, I introduced the concept of “Smart Computing,” which I predicted would drive the next big wave of technology innovation and growth in the 2008 to 2016 period (see December 4, 2009, "Smart Computing Drives The New Era of IT Growth"). Smart Computing involves the addition of new awareness technologies like RFID, sensors, and image recognition and new real-time analysis technologies, along with adoption of foundation technologies like service-oriented architectures, unified communications, virtualization, and cloud computing. Since then, I have been tracking the tech market for evidence that this is in fact happening.  

One key indicator I am watching is how many vendors have started to incorporate “Smart Computing” terms and language into their marketing, sales, and brand material.  This matters, because tech vendors will be the ones that translate the concepts embedded in Smart Computing into actual sales of solutions and products to clients, thereby generating the revenue growth that will cause the tech market to grow twice as fast as the economy as we expect.  In fact, that kind of tech market growth has been occurring, at least in the US (December 14, 2010, “US Tech Industry Outlook For 2011 -- 2011 Likely To Replay 2010's 8% Overall Domestic Growth Rate”).  But we want to see whether that strong growth is due to adoption of Smart Computing solutions, or other factors.

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Among Large Tech Vendors, Microsoft Does The Worst Job Of Reporting Its Revenues

To keep track of what’s happening to the tech market, I collect quarterly data on the revenues from more than 70 large IT vendors. Accordingly, I spend an unhealthy amount of time looking at their quarterly earnings releases, analyst presentations, and 10-Q and 10-K reports — making me something of a connoisseur of vendor earnings releases, at least from the perspective of revenues and their breakdown by products and geographies.

From that perspective, Microsoft wins the prize for the most opaque earnings release. First, 2003 was the last time it provided its revenues by geography and its revenues from sales to original equipment manufacturers. Since then, there’s been no data or even guidance on its geographic revenues. Second, it does not break out sales to consumers from sales to business and government, although it does report the growth rates in its sales of Office and its other information worker products to consumers or to enterprises. Third, about every year or so, it re-juggles its product line revenues, shifting product revenues into or out of different product lines. While it generally restates the revenues for the prior eight quarters to bring them into line with its new business unit categories, it doesn’t provide guidance or data on prior years, making comparisons with past years very challenging.

I considered ranking other vendors on the transparency of their earnings releases. But I decided it would be more useful to describe the kind of data that I as a technology analyst — and other vendor strategists analyzing the tech market — would like to get from vendor earnings releases.

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What Does The US Election Mean For The Tech Market? Not Much Either Way

While the last results for US Senate and House of Representative seats are still trickling in, the overall picture is clear — the Republicans have taken control of the House, but the Democrats will retain their majority in the Senate and of course still hold the presidency. In my view, this outcome is a small positive for the tech market, but doesn’t fundamentally change our outlook for around 8% growth in the US IT market and 7% growth in global IT markets in 2010 and 2011.

On the eve of the election, my big concern from an IT market perspective was that the Republicans would take control of both the House and the Senate. That concern was not driven by my political affiliation (which happens to favor the Democrats), but by the potential for a political stalemate between a confrontational Republican Congress (with hard-line conservative Republicans and Tea Party supporters setting a shut-down-the-government tone) and a combative Democratic president. In that political environment, badly needed measures to help stimulate a lagging economy would get stalled, the political battles could shake already weak business and consumer confidence, and the US economy could then slip into a renewed recession. And an economic downturn of course would be bad for the tech sector.

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Changes In The Media Explain Why The Smart Computing Revolution Is Not Yet Running On Internet Time

This past weekend, my wife wanted desperately to attend Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” to support the message of civility and moderation. An injured foot and problems with travel logistics kept her from attending, but we watched it on the Comedy Central network. It was, of course, a counterpoint to the “Restoring Honor” rally that Fox News’ Glen Beck held in August. However, there were two striking commonalities about the two rallies:

  • First, the ability of cable program show hosts to gather hundreds of thousands of people (estimates seem to be around 100,000 for the Beck rally and 200,000 for the Stewart rally) to travel to Washington for a rally. We’re not talking about rallies organized by a major political leader like President Obama or a media giant like Walter Cronkite with a TV audience of tens of millions of people. Instead, the TV personalities who hosted these events have cable audiences that on a good night may reach 3 to 5 million people.
  • Second, the absence of attention to substantive economic issues facing this country, such as persistent high unemployment, economic recovery strategies, education and competitiveness, global warming, or budget deficits and priorities. Instead, the rallies focused on culture, tone, and attitudes, with the Beck rally resembling a college homecoming event where the returning alumni complain about how the place has gone downhill since they left, while current seniors crack jokes and make fun of the old geezers wandering around the campus.
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While The Economy Outlook Is Murkier, Forrester Is Still Relatively Bullish On The Tech Market

Like many business executives and consumers, I have been paying a lot of attention to the economic indicators, looking for signs either of a stronger economic recovery or a potential renewed recession.  As a technology market analyst, I track economic indicators because I’ve found that the growth in the economy is one of the best predictors of what the technology market growth will be -- far better than surveying CIOs to find out their spending plans, which tend to be backward looking. 

Based on my reading of the economic indicators and the forecasts of professional economists, it looks to me that both the US economy and the global economy will fall between extremes of strong growth or recession, growing weakly but not slipping back into recession.   As a result,  in Forrester's latest forecast (US And Global IT Market Outlook: Q3 2010), we have trimmed our forecasts for the US tech market to a still-robust 8.1% growth for 2010 (down from our 9.9% forecast in July), with 7.4% growth in 2011.  Globally, the tech market measured in US dollars will grow by 7%, compared with our July forecast of 7.8%, with the somewhat weaker outlook for the US tech market offsetting slightly better performance in Europe and strong growth in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia/Pacific. 

These forecasts include business and government purchases of computer equipment, communications equipment, software, IT consulting and systems integration services, and IT outsourcing.  If we add telecommunications services (as we do for the first time in this report), US information and communications technology (ICT) market growth in 2010 will be 5.6% and 6.6% in 2011.

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Confusion On Fusion Apps At Oracle OpenWorld

Like thousands of Oracle clients and a dozen or so Forrester analysts, I was at Oracle OpenWorld last week.  One of the big news items was the announcement of the availability of Fusion Applications.  The creation of these new applications has been a massive effort, involving many of Oracle’s top software designers and developers working for over five years.  My preliminary opinion, along with my colleagues, is that Fusion apps do have some useful new features and a better user interface than prior Oracle products, as well as providing a more credible SaaS option than Oracle's prior On Demand offerings. 

However, there seems to me to be a lack of clarity as to how Fusion apps fit in the evolution of the Oracle family of apps.   To its credit, Oracle has stated that it is going to be responsive to clients, not forcing them to convert to Fusion nor make staying on existing apps unattractive by not supporting and enhancing those apps.  Instead, it wants to make Fusion apps so attractive that clients will want to adopt them, either (rarely) as a whole suite or (more likely) as step-by-step replacement or additions to existing app products.  Still, that leaves unclear what Oracle sees as the endgame for Fusion vs. its other app products. 

As I see it, there are four scenarios for how Fusion apps will relate over time to the existing portfolio of apps that Oracle has acquired and continues to support through its Applications Unlimited position:

  1. Fusion apps take over and replace the other applications over time.
  2. Fusion apps become yet another app product line, which co-exists with the other apps.
  3. Fusion app features and functions percolate into and are absorbed into the other apps, which persist indefinitely.
  4. Fusion apps provide new categories of applications, which get brought into the other app families as add-ons.
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The US Q2 2010 GDP Report: Good News For Tech, Not So Good For Employment

While taking in the latest US GDP report and its implications for the tech markets, I have been struck by a pattern of US business putting its money into technology instead of people. Part of the increased tech investment is replacement of old servers and PCs, but most investment has been in technologies to cut costs and improve efficiency. These purchases have been good news for the US tech market, which (as I predicted) is growing strongly. However, it is not so good for the overall economy. The lift to US economic growth from business IT investment is a positive, but the corporate reluctance to hire new employees is making consumers reluctant to spend. Moreover, much of the business investment in computer equipment is flowing overseas in the form of imports of these products, which is also hurting US GDP growth. So, the strong outlook for the tech market is paradoxically contributing to a less robust outlook for the US economy.

The US Department of Commerce released its preliminary report on US Gross Domestic Product in Q2 2010 last Friday, July 31, 2010, and today posted more detailed numbers on business investment in computer equipment and communications equipment. In addition to providing Q2 2010 data, there also were revisions in data for business investment in computer equipment, communications equipment, and software for 2007 to Q1 2010. So, let’s look at what the latest data is saying about the state of the US tech market.

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