Catching the moment when it changes

There are changes that have a relatively simple effect, there are changes that have a larger effect (upsetting a market or ecosystem), and then there are the changes that upset just about everything you’re used to.

That last group offers the greatest opportunities, but also the greatest threats, and not just directly.

When the automobile came on the scene, for instance, horse stablers, buggy manufacturers, harness makers and blacksmiths for horseshoes all faced a changed market. But the real changes ripped up politics (those who promised paved roads got elected, but paving and maintaining roads became a public sector function as a result), living conditions (land away from rail stations and tram stops suddenly became valuable, leading to mass suburbanization), “big box” retail became possible, downtowns were reconfigured … oh, and teenage pregnancies skyrocketed.

In the longer range, of course, the open road became the tailback of brake lights: the freedom promised in the early days, when cars were thin on the ground, became the congestion and traffic jam we live with today.

These very large changes tend to give you some decent response time — but the greatest opportunities are in the early days. (In Toronto, for instance, the Canadian Northern Railway recognized the opportunity to buy farmland and created the city’s first automobile suburb: Leaside.)

Right now there are several major transitions calling for attention. Today I’d like to talk about a simple one: the notion of cloud computing. You may be familiar with it through the use of the iCloud (iPhone, iPad) or Google Apps (Android devices) offerings.

For enterprises of all types, what the cloud actually signals is a fundamental shift in the way they build or implement applications to support the business. In other words, this affects everyone, public, private or not-for-profit sector.

The idea behind the cloud for a business is “variable capacity”. You have more customers all of a sudden? Turn on a few more instances of your applications to “up the power” — much like turning on a few lights when it suddenly gets dark in a mid-day thunderstorm outside. Shut them down when the burst passes.

For the enterprise, this makes their IT base a variable cost, responsive to business load, instead of a fixed cost that has to be bought to handle peak conditions. This is as true whether the cloud is implemented privately as if public cloud facilities are used (and the wise enterprise will use a hybrid of the two).

What’s holding this oh-so-obvious shift back is the equivalent of being an early automobile or truck owner. For motor vehicles, good roads and gas stations had to emerge to really take off and open up the opportunities for real estate development, expanding housing sizes, etc. For information technology, the roadblock is the existing application portfolio.

It was all designed for the world we’re coming from. It’s not generally capable of using variable numbers of instances of itself responding to load.

Now as with all transitions, those who profited from the older model have a vested interest in slowing the change, or diverting it. But the opportunities come from deciding to move as quickly as possible into the new order, once you’ve decided the change is real.

That last point is the point of today’s post. That something can be done doesn’t mean it will be done. On the other hand, the main chance comes from making the leap from old to new earlier rather than later. That’s a judgement call — and a key part of doing your own personal due diligence.

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