Jon Collins, originally published on Views from the bridge

This year has not been easy for many. By all accounts it has been a polarised recession: some of the largest companies have fallen, while for others, business has been booming. The stock markets plummeted only to rebound; organisations have offered themselves up for sale and then decided, actually, they could go it alone; redundancy packages have been announced and then withdrawn; in the UK, house prices are once again higher than they no doubt should be – with the net effect of leaving individuals and companies alike with that best-just-get-on-with-it feeling.

In IT, perhaps, we have seen it all before. This is my tenth year as an analyst – and I seemed to spend most of the ‘middle years’ introducing every article and paper with the words, “as we emerge from the downturn…”. Now here we are again: budgets are being squeezed, Opex is generally the focus over Capex, and vendors and end-user organisations are having to demonstrate value in everything they propose. But ROI is no longer being punted as yet another “next big thing” – it is merely something that needs to be taken into account because it would be foolish not to.

Speaking personally, one thing is for sure, this certainly was an interesting (in the Chinese sense of “May you live in interesting times”) year to be taking over in charge of a company. Freeform Dynamics may be small but – just like any other company – we still have P&L to consider, bills to pay, mouths to feed. Looking back, I believe 2009 will be the year that we grew up as a business – across the team we learned to be more disciplined about what we do and how we do it. We remembered what it was we were set up to achieve, and I can now explain to family members what it is I do without them looking politely puzzled, or simply glazing over.

It’s been a hard year, but equally, it has been a good year for Freeform Dynamics. As we’ve grown we’ve learned more about how to engage with the audiences that matter to us most, that is, the community of mainstream IT decision makers and professionals. At the same time our writing skills have been developing, both through sheer force of having to do lots of it and with the help and support of David Tebbutt, who brought a much-needed level of editorial discipline to the company in the two years he was with us. Another high point was undoubtedly being voted second analyst firm in Europe by those people who manage analyst relationships. Strip everything else away and all it meant was, “The people we like to talk to.” Which, of course, means a great deal.

What of next year? When it comes to predictions, I’m afraid I can’t share some of our competitors’ opinions that Cloud Computing will be “The big thing” to happen in 2010. It occurred to me quite recently where the confusion lies – that in this wonderfully innovative and yet charmingly backward industry, changes that happen to IT vendors are often misinterpreted (transference, maybe?) as changes to how organisations do business. If we turn the telescope around, yes, sure, I have no doubt that Cloud Computing is already having quite an impact on the vendor space and will continue to do so. But while changes in the engine might be profound, we are a long way off achieving what end-users might consider to be a smoother drive. Back in 2002 I called the journey towards the Universal Service Provider “the revolution that never was” – and while I remain confident of the destination, it will take more than a few articles in Management Today, a hastily-organised conference and a Twitter hashtag to get us there.

My money is on virtualisation – an area of IT where the reality and the vendor hype do appear to be achieving some level of parity. Most organisations are still, in general terms, only trialling virtualisation. We can say both that the best is yet to come, and the fan has yet to meet the fecal matter. This will be a big year for infrastructure – getting the hardware layer working as a layer, moving data and execution capability around, building in the qualities required to underpin acceptable levels of service delivery, from data protection to risk mitigation. Very boring, very necessary, and undoubtedly where much of the action will be.

I’d also spare some thought for Green IT. We shall continue to see the debate broaden beyond power and cooling, and come April of course, “Green” will become a compliance issue. On the radio the pundits are talking about the failure of Copenhagen, but at the same time, individual countries have now moved a lot closer to deciding their own strategies. IT undoubtedly has a major part to play, not just in sorting itself out but particularly in how innovative use of technology can help reduce the overall footprint, and we shall be continuing to watch this area with interest.

Meanwhile, service provision in general is, as implied by Cloud, going to continue in its rapid evolution (that’s one for the punctuated equilibrium fans). The machinations of vendors are quite fascinating – companies with their heritage(s) in hosting, telecommunications, software, hardware, internet search and so on are all deciding, rightly or wrongly, that they are running after the same ball. It is like watching a flotilla of tankers trying to turn around and head in the same direction, towards a goal that remains, thus far, a mirage – some parts of the model are proven (managed services, outsourcing, certain contractual vehicles and so on) but others (Platform as a Service, anyone?) remain highly speculative.

Then what is this goal? IT is not an end in itself, it’s a set of mechanisms that help individuals collaborate better, and companies deliver services to their customers. Much depends on integration – at both a hardware and software level. It is all too easy to work out potential answers, but far harder to establish what will really make a difference given the mish-mash of technological slurry that already exists. At Freeform Dynamics we shall continue to peel back the layers of understanding, as seen through the optic of what’s really going to make a difference to mainstream IT – the centre of the bell curve. Our core business remains research, from which we shall continue to deliver down-to-earth, practical guidance aimed at real people, not theorists. It’s a simple enough vision: if you can’t see the wood for the trees, who would you rather meet – an elf with a magic map, or a woodsman?

From our perspective, we’ll be starting the new year with a team at full strength – we’re all delighted to welcome Dale back, now he has finally been able to say goodbye to what at times was a truly debilitating illness. We have some announcements up our sleeves, and we shall continue to grow our team of analysts, both to strengthen our core areas of coverage and grow beyond them. My heartfelt thanks go out to everyone in the team, for sharing the passion about what we are trying to achieve and working so hard to deliver on it.

A huge thank you also to everyone we have interacted with. It’s a complex web, isn’t it – the touch points between technology producers, consumers, commentators and advisors will no doubt continue to blur. 2010 will be “interesting times” for many, and we have learned enough over the past few years to not take anything for granted. But there remains plenty to look forward to.

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