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Published in IT World
March 28, 2006

Blue is the New Green - IT as a Fashion Industry

From time to time it strikes me that computer users under 30 increasingly think of computers as terminals. A PC is a thing with a Web Browser that is strapped to a printer, some speakers and perhaps a microphone. The computer they are using is not the PC itself. It is just the terminal. The computer they are using is Google or e-Bay or whatever. I scanned a room full of users like these recently and noticed the high number of blue-colored screen savers and backgrounds on the monitors.

As a computer user on the north side of thirty, I remember a bygone era when exactly the same was true with one major difference. The dominant color on the monitors was green. I speak of course of the green-screen era of mainframes and minicomputers. The Web is really just a very big,very distributed mainframe as far as the modern day terminal - the web browser - is concerned.

So history has repeated itself. Why so? Normally, we think of the IT industry as being one that is blessed with constant innovation and advancement. It is the endless progress in the field that is responsible for the endless change that we suffer/enjoy. This is certainly true most of the time but it is not - let us be honest here - true all of the time. To explain the rest of the volatility in our industry we need look no further than the fashion industry for a comparison.

In the world of fashion, there is a constant change. Colors move in and out of fashion. Fabrics come and go. Necklines go up, necklines go down. What drives all the change? Are significant advances being made every year in materials, machinery etc. to explain all the change?

No. There are, from time to time major innovations - such as the invention of nylon - that change the world of fashion dramatically. The rest of the change however, is created by the fashion market itself, not by physical-world innovations. Designers design things and then market them. The marketing creates a need and the designers then fill the needs that they themselves created. Classic free market stuff. Marketing 101.

Most of us would like to pretend that this does not happen in the IT industry but it does. We now have an industry with a handful of truly global, major players. These players can and do, shape the very market for IT.

To see examples of this you need look no further than the buzzwords we use. We talk of application servers and portal servers and content management and document management and knowledge management and customer relationship management and Web 2.0 and AJAX and...

Now what do these terms mean and who gets to decide what they mean? For the most part, the industry itself creates them, thus creating a market with a need and then filling that need. Marketing 101.

Now I am not saying this is a bad thing. I am just pointing to its existence because it can be important to know when this sort of fashion-industry dynamic is taking place. For example, it is important to be aware of it if you are concocting plans for a software product. Have you a brilliant idea that does not fit into the current list of fashionable terms used in the industry? If so, you have a problem. It does not matter how wonderful your idea is, if it breaks with what is currently fashionable you will need serious marketing budget and/or seriously good luck or, most likely, both.

Unless you have the IT industry's equivalent of the invention of nylon stockings in your business plan you may need to be a follower rather than an inventor of fashion of this industry. Unless you have that most fashionable of all accessories; deep pockets.