The topic of "Innovation" has been trending ever since Steve Jobs announced he was quitting.
It makes a plethora of interesting reading about how companies innovate and how Apple is said to innovate, whether Jobs was critical to their innovation,and in fact the greatest CEO ever! There is even raging debate over the word itself including "creative disruptive" innovation! (It makes sense!). We have warnings against gamification of innovation, against democratization, and in favour of democratization, and about the long nose of innovation. We read of encouraging positive deviance and emergent employees. And we even have debates about whether Henry Ford said or did not say "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses".
And then there's the cloud! Is it innovative or not?
I'm a fan of Simon Wardley and Randy Bias on this (and throw in some Berard Golden). Cloud computing per se is not really disruptive innovation. That's not to say that it is not innovative. And it is certainly not to say that it is the same old thing we've had for years just rebadged by marketers.
That "old hat" line, used by the best salesmen in the old enterprise software and new private cloud vendor organisations, is simply a ploy. It's a sales ploy to keep the buyer in their comfort zone while they sell them some more "stuff" to keep them away from the real cloud.
Need to get your head into the value not the features
As far as the IT infrastructure goes it's fair to say that it is evolving, or sustaining, innovation and not disruptive innovation. Even though for the major cloud operators and providers e.g. Facebook or Amazon, it has required a lot of innovative pursuits, the result from the consumers' viewpoint is not disruptive innovation.
For instance, let's consider virtualization, because it is often discussed as the core "innovation" of cloud computing. I've picked it for 2 reasons. The first reason is that often becomes the sink hole for discussions on cloud, as the be-all and end-all, and the second reason is that it illustrates the point about evolving innovation.
Discussions about cloud often centre on virtualization. But cloud and virtualization are independent, especially as far as the potential of disruptive innovation is concerned, and I'll come to that later. Google, Facebook, Amazon don't use virtualisation. Why not? It's probably more complex but the reasoning at its simplest is that they can't afford to use it. It would increase their capital and operating costs and cut their margins by doing so - think of a 20% hit to each.
Why then, do so many big IT shops use virtualization. Good question!
Here's the uncommon answers - firstly they have to clean up their mess, and secondly they haven't got the talent not to.
- Cleaning up the mess. When you've built an infrastructure mess which is getting worse, it can become economically attractive to impose layers of inefficiency since those inefficiencies are less costly than continuing to build more mess.
- Haven't got the talent. The big cloud providers are magnets for the top talent, and it takes talent to get all this right. The Amazon and the Googles and the Facebooks and the Microsofts have the most challenging cloud workloads on the planet - even the big banks don't rate at this scale. It takes talent to move your core systems into a real cloud environment and especially a super-efficient non-virtualized one a la Facebook.
Virtualization does offer a path forward for those "normal" big IT shops who have a mess to clean up. It's an effective way to get some mess under control and hopefully to get a tighter and more efficient architecture out of the transition going forward out of virtualization. But it is not fundamental to "cloud computing".
Conclusion, if you could do it, you often would be better to not virtualize anything in building your core services into a real cloud environment. At best virtualization is a feature, not a benefit.
The second reason I mentioned virtualization was to illustrate its evolutionary heritage. It's certainly not new.
Most often people reference the late 70's and IBM. But it was in commercial use in the early-70s by Burroughs, and by ICL of the UK. ICL's George 3 operating system allowed for multiple copies of its predecessor, the George 2 OS, to be hosted within it as a migration strategy. All the old programs could be run "as is" under George 2, while the system as a whole ran under George 3. This feature offered many advantages in systems administration, but was ineffecient. I know, because I was a George 2 and a George 3 systems programmer, and I wrote my Masters thesis on Machine Portability in the mid 70s.
So the point is that the myriad of developments needed to deliver cloud as a service are part of a chain of evolutionary innovation. This is of no interest to the business consumers of cloud, as these are simply features of cloud not benefits to the business user.
The key for business is that the delivery chain of cloud has now reached a point where it can enable disruptive innovation for the business.
It's about the business bozo!
That is, the features of cloud have been cleverly developed over a long time - they do represent something new in their combination. But the potential of cloud is in the benefit to business to create new business models, new services, new sources of wealth, and new agility.
Those can be disruptive, at the business and industry level. That's why business should be extremely interested in cloud and very uninterested in how it is delivered.
Does it interest you how telco carriers have evolved and developed the technology to deliver us better internet access? For 99.99999% of us the answer is no. But we are interested in how we can make money from having that asset, and particularly if we can layer on a disruptive business model.
Cloud is a vehicle for disruptive innovation by those higher up the value chain - not on the provider side but in the higher order application on the customer business model side.
In fact it's the biggest disruptive opportunity for business for the last 20 years. That's where the opportunity for real cloud innovation lies. And that's also the reason that those businesses which stick their heads in the sand about cloud may well be placing their business at risk of being attacked by more nimble and cost-effective competitors.
If you are driving your business forward and see innovation as an ingrained strength then you must come to grips, as soon as possible, with how cloud computing can help deliver shareholder value.
Why do so many firms find themselves debating cloud innovation rather than business innovation from cloud?
See my question on Quora.
Please comment below.