2011 Retrospective – The Best And The Worst Of The Technology World

OK, it’s time to stretch the 2012 writing muscles, and what better way to do it than with the time honored “retrospective” format. But rather than try and itemize all the news and come up with a list of maybe a dozen or more interesting things, I decided instead to pick the best and the worst – events and developments that show the amazing range of the technology business, its potentials and its daily frustrations. So, drum roll, please. My personal nomination for the best and worst of the year (along with a special extra bonus category) are:

The Best – IBM Watson stomps the world’s best human players in Jeopardy. In early 2011, IBM put its latest deep computing project, Watson, up against some of the best players in the world in a game of Jeopardy. Watson, consisting of hundreds of IBM Power CPUs, gazillions of bytes of memory and storage, and arguably the most sophisticated rules engine and natural language recognition capability ever developed, won hands down. If you haven’t seen the videos of this event, you should – seeing the IBM system fluidly answer very tricky questions is amazing. There is no sense that it is parsing the question and then sorting through 200 – 300 million pages of data per second in the background as it assembles its answers. This is truly the computer industry at its best. IBM lived up to its brand image as the oldest and strongest technology company and showed us a potential for integrating computers into untapped new potential solutions. Since the Jeopardy event, IBM has been working on commercializing Watson with an eye toward delivering domain-specific expert advisors. I recently listened to a presentation by a doctor participating in the trials of a Watson medical assistant, and the results were startling in terms of the potential to assist medical professionals in diagnostic procedures.

The Worst – Oracle disenfranchises HP-UX users and the companies take to the courts. In March, Oracle dropped a major bombshell when it announced that it would be ceasing further development on Itanium-based software, effectively disenfranchising a great many HP users (HP is the vast majority of the world’s Itanium system business). Subsequent legal filings, culminating in Oracle’s most recent counterclaim in which they assert that when they have their day in court they will prove that HP was misleading their customers about Itanium’s future, will do nothing to help any users, regardless of the outcome. Oracle’s decision opens up multiple areas of debate, ranging from the legality of their move (in my unqualified opinion, yes it was legal) to its economics (yes, probably made sense in the long-term, although their actions will help accelerate the demise of Itanium), to the ethical issues of how much warning a company owes to its customers to give them maximum lead times and smooth transitions, even if it costs them to do it that way. I picked this as the worst not particularly because I think that Oracle is evil (I would go so far as to say possibly less sensitive to customer feelings than other companies), but because it illustrates the incredible mess that ensues when major suppliers make unilateral decisions that in the end do not really benefit customers. In this case Oracle will come out ahead as they sell new licenses on new hardware to replace the old ones on HP-UX, and even HP will partially make up revenue losses from HP-UX by being the preferred vendor for the largely x86 replacement systems. Lawyers for HP, Oracle and possibly the odd customer or two will make a fortune. The only ones who lose are customers forced into migrations that add no transformational value to their business.

The most ironic and iconic – October 5, 2011, the same day that Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Salesforce’s Marc Benieoff were engaged in a flamboyant duel of egos and cloud visions in San Francisco during Oracle Open World, was also the day that Steve Jobs died. This is more irony than any script writer would ever dare to put in a movie - the quiet death of one of the most iconic, controversial and brilliant contributors the industry has ever known while two of the larger-than-life actors on the industry stage filled the air with the “sturm und drung” of high vendor drama.

So, that’s what I remember most about 2011. Other nominations are more than welcome.