As the changing of the guard in Washington, DC approaches, all eyes are on President Barack Obama’s new administration, looking for clues to how bad the economic downturn might get before things improve, and how long the pain may last.
Looking toward an uncertain future, then, a couple of things are worth noting. Even as the effects of instability in the nation’s banking system and inflationary excesses worked to unhinge the housing market, technology has largely limped along since the “dot com economy”‘s initial implosion at the beginning of this decade. And yet, new products have continued to come to market, and new technologies have continued to evolve. Sun Microsystems stock and shares in Cisco or Intel may have produced anemic ROI in the past decade, but all three of those companies remain part of the backbone of things used every day by hundreds of millions of people the world over.
So who are the technology business leaders worth watching as the domestic and world economies struggle to right themselves in coming years? Which companies and technologies are likely to remain vital to the fabric of worldwide communication innovations a decade from now?
Follow me after the jump for a quick look at 10 worth keeping an eye on in the coming year.
I’m not going to number this list because I don’t want to create the idea of any kind of hierarchy. These are just 10 people involved with companies whose fortunes will continue to have an impact on the means and methods by which we communicate with one another in the coming years. The list is comprised of the biggest names because at the present juncture, over the immediate horizon, as go the biggest, so may go the rest.
How not to lead off, then, with Steve Jobs? Apple, Inc. has been one of the few consistently bright spots in the technology firmament over the past ten years. The company enjoyed its most profitable year ever in 2008. Apple’s desktops and mobile platform continue to be more and more widely adopted and the company is clearly on the precipice of going from a much-loved purveyor of boutique consumer appliances to a worldwide competitor for technology dollars once assumed to be the province of Dell and Microsoft. But Job’s long-term health is a big question mark. The company’s stock price lost half its value in the space of a couple of hours one recent morning – the effect of a baseless rumor of his imminent demise. In the Apple blogosphere, countless pixels are generated in the service of speculation over the succession of power at Apple in the wake of Jobs’ inevitable exit from the scene, and some believe that, no matter how long he remains at the helm, Apple’s best days may be behind it. Any way you angle the prism, Steve Jobs, and his influence, will remain in view for some time to come.
John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, has manned the helm of the computer industry’s networking behemoth, though not in nearly as active a role as the one Jobs has played at Apple, but Chambers’ company is the acknowledged king of the enterprise communications realm. Now Cisco is lapping at the fountain of consumer and SMB communications budgets, at a time when people and businesses worldwide look for ways to cut travel expenses. Cisco’s telepresence solutions would seem to be an attractive answer to many such concerns and Chambers’ fire for guiding the company during the coming economic upheaval should provide textbook case studies for business school students a generation from now.
Intel is the Eveready Bunny of IT, no? In the end, it’s all about the chips on which every single one of our devices depends for power and intelligence, and Intel remains inside more gadgetry and appliances than do the chips of any other semiconductor company. Craig Barrett, Intel’s Chairman has taken on a visible role as a worldwide ambassador of IT, spreading the gospel of productivity and efficiency in the developing world even as his company helps to drive down the cost of technology with chips that are smaller, cheaper and more powerful with every business cycle. Whether Intel can remain at the top of the chip pyramid may be of less consequence – in the big picture – than are the results of Barrett’s mission to bring high-tech to new markets.
Mark Hurd, CEO of HP, caught an extremely hot potato, or was handed a plate of steaming poo (depending on your perspective), in the wake of Carly Fiorina’s departure from the executive suite at one of technology’s granddaddy companies. He could have circled the wagons and kept HP focused on its core competency in the printer business, but instead has managed to position the company as a force to be reckoned with on the PC playing field, where once-dominant Dell is now eating its dust. HP has also challenged its granddaddy peer IBM in the server realm and the shores to which Hurd steers HP in the coming year should prove noteworthy for the fruit his stewardship bears.
As companies and their workforces decentralize, as globalization continues to permeate the structures of businesses whose design teams and manufacturing units and support departments and distribution hubs can each be located, in some cases, on different continents – it’s all about “the cloud.” Web-based communication services and information storage technologies appear to be integral to the model of decentralized business operations, and one company has positioned itself as a poster child for making that model work – Salesforce.com. CEO Marc Benioff has seen his company’s share price plummet from recent highs along with that of almost every other holding in the equity universe, but he’s helped prove the viability of cloud computing with the success of Salesforce’s web-based CRM system. Keeping an eye on Benioff and his company’s prospects should provide telling clues to the direction and potential for software as a service going forward.
The most prominent shadow cast over the Internet today may be Google’s. Already the most widely used search engine and online advertising agency, there appears to be no realm the organizations headed by CEO Eric Schmidt are not interested in stamping with Google’s colorful logo. Google has gained steady traction with its Gmail product, competing with Microsoft Exchange as a viable email solution for business. Its online collaboration tools have evolved steadily into something more and more usable, and the Android mobile computing platform is only just breaking out of its embryonic shell. There’s always danger in embracing the claim of being the smartest guys in the room, but Schmidt and Google must at least be acknowledged for having the stones to want it all.
Of course, the company from whom Google wrested the mantle of search engine king is Yahoo, whose fallen founder Jerry Yang was forced to slink from the scene in the debacle surrounding Microsoft’s failed bid to acquire his company this year. Yang’s greatest sin may not have been his refusal to accept Microsoft’s offer of $30 per share (at press time YHOO was trading $11.96 on the bid), but rather his failure to confront the challenges posed by Google well before Microsoft entered the picture. That and and a lack of vision as to what kind of value proposition Yahoo could represent for technology users of tomorrow will define Yang’s legacy. Now the person to watch at Yahoo is a man with little connection to technology or communications per se, dominant shareholder and board member Carl Ichan, whose guiding principle is maximizing his personal ROI.
The other player in the sad saga of Yahoo’s fall from grace is perennial technology benchmark Microsoft, whose CEO Steve Ballmer may be under more of a microscope than any other technology executive in the world. With Microsoft founder Bill Gates having retired to a life of elder statesmanship and philanthropy, the fortunes of IT’s original Dark Lord rest in the hands of a guy who, so far, seems no more capable of articulating a vision of his company’s place at the business round table than was Yahoo’s Yang. Look for 2009 to be a make or break year for both Ballmer and Microsoft.
Once upon a time, Research in Motion (RIM), makers of Blackberry smartphones, owned the hearts and minds of movers and shakers, from the C Levels of the Fortune 500 to the Biggest Dawgs in the Hood. The iPhone upset that whole applecart in 2007 and ever since, RIM has been dancing as fast as it can, finally coming out late this year with the mildly well-received Blackberry Bold and putting a brave face on things in its last quarterly look ahead to 2009. Whether co-CEOs Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis can keep the mobile phone maker and its platform relevant in the face of larger changes in the economy and in the mobile communications market itself – and whether investors can dream of ever seeing a share price north of $100 again – remain very much to be seen. With moribund Palm once its only real competitor, RIM now has Apple and Google both smelling its blood and not a few mobile analysts pronouncing its eventual irrelevance all but a fait accompli.
Rounding out the list is a man and a company familiar, perhaps, not too far beyond the knowing circles of those who make it their business to understand IT communications. Danny Windham heads a company that was just founded in 1999, but Digium, creators of Asterisk, the open source PBX that lies at the heart of many IP communications installations, is a name more and more will come to know in the coming year. As all communications converge onto IP based infrastructure, as data, voice, and video become seamlessly integrated to both fixed and mobile devices, Digium is uniquely positioned at the intersection of the movement toward IP Telephony and the movement toward open collaboration. Already working in collaboration with Skype, Windham’s company is making it possible for businesses using Asterisk-based phone systems to create a presence on the Skype network allowing users to place and receive calls to any of Skype’s 370 million users for free. It says here, of all the companies on this list, Digium may prove the most fun to watch in the coming year.
In closing, I think it’s worth noting that while we face a sea change in both the attitude and sensibility of policy makers in Washington, represented in the country’s first black president preparing to take office, surrounded by officers and advisers of unprecedented diversity, buoyed on a desire for change and the hopes and aspirations of a nation fearful and uncertain of its security and its future – the list I’ve compiled here is 100% male, 100% white. I had no intention going in to produce such a list, but there it is. Every person and every company mentioned here fits within the limited confines of the list’s purpose and if the list is to be critiqued for an absence of women or for lacking people of color, the critique is one on the state of American business and on where it stands in relation to the winds of change.
UPDATE: This article has been corrected to reflect that Craig Barrett is the Chairman of Intel and not the CEO as originally reported.