Irving Wladawsky-Berger: Evolution of Technology and Innovation

Editor’s Note: Dr. Irving Wladawsky-Berger retired from IBM on May 31, 2007 after 37 years with the company. As Chairman Emeritus, IBM Academy of Technology, he continues to participate in a number of IBM’s technical strategy and innovation initiatives. He is also Visiting Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT, where he is involved in multi-disciplinary research and teaching activities focused on how information technologies are helping transform business organizations and the institutions of society. You can read his full bio from here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Irving Wladawsky-Berger recently to gain insights about the evolution of Technology and Innovation which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Irving, thank you so much for joining us.  We are thrilled and honored to have you for eTalks .

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: Niaz, thank you for having me.

Niaz: You began your career in IBM as a researcher in 1970. You have retired from IBM on May 31, 2007 as a Vice President of Technical Strategy and Innovation. From the dawn of Supercomputing to the rise of Linux and Open Source, the Internet, Cloud Computing, Disruptive Innovation, Big Data and Smarter Planet; you have been involved with it all.  You have worked for 37 years for bringing sustainable technological innovations for IBM. Can you please give us a brief of the evolution of technology and innovation? What do you think about the technological trend that has been changing since you have joined in IBM?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: Well,It has been changed radically since the time I started in 1970 until now, let say, after 30 years. At the time in 1970, there were no personal computers and needless to say there was no internet. Computers were expensive and people were able to use them in a time sharing mode. Usually you would be needed a contract to be able to operate a computer and it was relatively expensive at that time. So most of the innovation and research had to be done in a kind of big science lab environment, whether it’s at a university like MIT or an R&D lab in IBM. Now all that began to change when personal computers emerged in the 1980s and especially in the next decade in 1990s, because personal computers became much more powerful and much less expensive. And then we had the internet. Remember the internet was only really blocking to the world in the mid 90s. And all of a sudden, it was much easier for lots of people to have access to the proper technologies and to start doing all kind of entrepreneurial innovations. Before that it was very expensive and then with the internet they were able to distribute their offerings online directly to their customers. Previously, they needed distributor channels and it did cost a lot of money. That has changed even more in just the last few years because of the advent of Cloud Computing. People started to do entrepreneurial business. They don’t even need to buy computer equipment anymore. They have a laptop or a smart phone that they use to get access in the cloud. As a result the cost of operating business is getting lower. This is particularly important for emerging economy like India, Africa or Latin America. Because they don’t have that much access to capital as we do here in the United States. So the availability of the internet, cloud computing and mobile devices etc. is going to have a huge impact for entrepreneurialism especially in emerging economy.

Niaz: So what has surprised you most about the rise and spread of the internet over the past 15 years?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: Wellyouknowwhen I started, before the mid 90s, I was very involved with the Internet but as part of supercomputing before then the internet was primarily used in research lab and universities. And it all started to change with the advent of World Wide Web as well as Web Browser.  It made everything much more accessible. It was so easier to use. Before browsers, it was primarily interfaced that engineers had to learn to use. It wasn’t really available to the majority of people. The internet probably like other disruptive technologies; we knew it was exciting, we knew some good things could happen. But most of us couldn’t anticipate how transformative it would become. As an example, the fact that it would so much transform the media industry,  the music industry, newspapers, video streaming etc. On the other side, some of distinct people were predicting of the internet in the near term, like ‘it would totally transform the economy. You don’t need revenue and cash anymore’. That was wrong. So some of the predictions were just wrong, just like ‘you don’t need revenue and cash anymore’. Because if you are running a business you need revenue, cash and profit. Some of the predictions have been taking a lot longer than people thought in the early days because you needed broadband and things like that. And then other changes happened faster than any of us anticipated. In just an interesting experience, to watch how unpredictable disruptive technologies are.

Niaz: Now what do you think about the future of internet? What significant changes are going to occur in near future?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: First of all, I think broadband will keep advancing. And that’s being one of the most important changes. When I started using internet in the mid 90s, it was 16kb over a dial modem. Then few years later, it only went to 64kb over dial modem and then broadband came in. And it is getting better and better and better. Now in some countries, as you know, like South Korea, is extremely fast. And I think in US we don’t have that good broadband yet. But it is good to see it continues to be better.  Broadband wireless has come along. And that is very nice. I think the rise of mobile devices like Smart phones in the last few years, has the most important ways of accessing internet. And it has been an absolute phenomenon. And absolute phenomenon.  When the internet first showed off in the mid 90s, we were very worried that the internet was growing you needed to be able to have a PC and in those days time PCs were not that much inexpensive. You needed an internet service provider. That was not inexpensive either. So there was a strong digital divide even with the advanced economy like USA. I remember having a number of important meetings, while I was working in Washington in those days on the digital divide. All that had disappeared as you know mobile devices are so inexpensive. Just about everybody can afford it now.  But not all mobile devices are smart phones yet capable of accessing the internet. And I believe within few years, just about everybody in the world will be able to access the information, resource and application. That is going to be gigantic.  Finally, internet, broadband, cloud computing and disruptive innovations are going to bring changes that will be the most important change over the next few decades.

Niaz: As you know, Big Data has become a hot topic of tech industry. What do you think about Big Data?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: Big Data is very interesting. And what it means is that we now have access to huge amount of real time data that can be totally analyzed and interpreted to give deep insight. Now I am involved with a new initiative of New York University called Center for Urban Science and Progress. A lot of the promise is to gather lot of information about transportation, energy uses, health and lots of other real time information in the city and being able to use it effectively to better manage the city and to make it more efficient. So now, we have access to big amount of data. But being able to manage those data, being able to run experiments and being able to make sense of data, you need to model. You need a hypothesis that you embedded in a model. Then you test your model against your data to see your model is true or not. If your model is true then the prediction you are making is correct. And if your model is not true, the predictions you are making is incorrect. Like for an example, you can get lots of health care data. But for finding the meaning, using those data efficiently, you have to have a good model. So in my mind big data is very important but more important which I called Data Science. Data Science is the ability to write model to use the data and get inside from what the data is telling and then put it into practice. And the data science is very new even big data itself is very new.  I think that it shows tremendous promise but we now have to build the next layers of data science in the discipline and that will be done discipline by discipline.

Niaz: Over the past twenty years you have been involved in a number of initiatives dealing with disruptive innovations. What do you think about disruptive innovation?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: I think that the work of Clayton Christensen has been really excellent. People knew that there were disruptive technologies that may change but until Clay wrote his book Innovators Dilemma and I think his next book ‘Innovators Solution’ is even better. I use these books in the graduate course at MIT. These are two excellent books on innovation. People didn’t understand for example why it is so tough to manage disruptive innovation? How is it different from the regular sustaining innovation or incrementing innovation? What do the companies should do with sustaining or incrementing innovation vs. disruptive innovation? And so he framed it in an excellent way to show the differences and to provide the guidelines for companies what they should do and that what they should watch out for. I think he wrote ‘Innovators Dilemma’ around 1990s. Now even today, the reality is, many companies don’t appreciate how difficult it is to truly embrace disruptive innovation. If you go and ask companies about disruptive innovation, they would say they are doing disruptive innovation. But in reality they are just working with incrementing innovation.  But to really be embarrassing disruptive, it’s till culturally very difficult for many companies.

Niaz: What is cloud computing? What are the ideas behind cloud computing?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: There are many definitions of cloud computing. There is no one definition. I think the reason is that cloud computing is not any one thing. I think that it’s really a new model of computing where the internet is the platform for that computing model. If you look at the history of computing, in the first phase, we had the central computing model and the mainframes in the data center were the main platform of that model. That model lasted from the beginning of the computing industry until let say mid 80s. Then the client server model came.  And in the client server model, the PCs were the central platform of that model. Now cloud computing is a model and it’s totally organized around the internet and it’s totally organized to make it possible to access hardware resources, storage resources, middleware resources, application resources and services over the internet . So cloud computing, when you think about it, the actual computer is totally distributed over the internet in the cloud.  Finally cloud computing is the most interesting model of computing built totally around the internet.

Niaz: How much disruption does cloud computing represent when compared with the Internet?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: I think cloud is the evolution of the internet. I think cloud computing is a massive disruption. And it is a very big disruptive part of the internet, because it’s totally changing the way people can get access to application and to information. Instead of having them in your PC or in the computers in your firm, you can now easily get whatever you want from the cloud. And you can get it in much standardize ways. So cloud makes it much easier and much less expensive for everybody whether you are a big company or whether you are a small or medium size company or whether you are an individual to get access to very sophisticated applications. And you don’t have to know everything. Remember in the PC days, if you bought an application, you got a disk, you had to load it, then there were new versions and you had to manage those versions by yourself. It was such an advance way over the previous worlds. Everybody was happy. But it was very difficult to use. Cloud as you know the whole world of apps. If you need apps, you can go to apps store. And an app store is basically a cloud store. So you can easily get whatever you need from the app store. When an app has a new release it will tell you. You don’t have to know everything. You have to do anything. It all being engineered and that is making IT capabilities available to many more companies and people. So it’s very disruptive.

Niaz: What do you think about the future of startups which are competing with giants like IBM, Google, Amazon, Facebook?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: That’s the history of the industry. You know, in the 80s, people said how anybody competes with IBM as IBM is such a big and powerful company. And the few years later, IBM was almost died because client server computing came in and all these companies like Sun Microsystems, Microsoft, Compaq; they almost killed IBM. And locally for me who was there it didn’t die. Then in 90s, you could say, how can anybody compete with Microsoft after windows came up, it was so powerful, it was everything. Google was nothing at the beginning. And here we are now. Every few years we ask this question, here is the most powerful company of the world and what can possibly happen to them?  And you know sometimes nothing happens to them. And they continue being more powerful. Sometimes, in the case of IBM, they reinvent themselves. And they stay very relevant. They are just no longer the most advanced company in the world, they are an important company. But In 70s and 80s it was the leader in the computing industry. I think many people wouldn’t say about IBM now. For competing and surviving in any industry you have to have a very good business model. And for entrepreneurial innovation, coming up with a great business model is the hardest and core challenge.

Niaz: Can you please tell us something about the ways of asking BIG questions to challenge the tradition and come up with disruptive innovation?

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: Niaz, you are asking a very good question because asking big questions, coming with new business idea or business model is very difficult. I would say, in the old days, lot of the ideas came from laboratory if I talk about IT industry. Today, the core of innovation is in the market place. How can you come up with a great new application or a great new solution that will find a market that will find customers who want it. You have to be much focused. You have to have some good ideas. You have to study the market. You have to understand who are likely to be your customers. You have to know who your competitors are going to be. If those competitors are going to be big like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, you have to know, if you are starting a new company, what do you have unique over those companies. But I think that in general the inspiration or new ideas is a combination of creativity and market place. You have to look at the market place and have to be inspired by marketplace. Here are some great ideas you have and bring light. I think I couldn’t able to give good answer. You are asking like ‘Where the great business ideas come from’. It’s like asking movie directors or composers, where do you get your creativity. It’s a similar question. There is no good answer to that.

Niaz: Thank you Irving. I am wishing you very good luck for your good health and all future projects.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger: You are welcome. It was very nice talking to you. And good luck to you Niaz.

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Further Reading:

1. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on Big Data Revolution

2. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

3. Ely Kahn on Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship

4. Brian Keegan on Big Data

5. danah boyd on Future of Technology and Social Media

6. James Allworth on Disruptive Innovation

7. Horace Dediu on Asymco, Apple and Future of Computing

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