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Tech giants don't invent the future, they package it

Sanding down the rough edges of progress

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Open ... and Shut Enterprise technology vendors have a serious case of "not invented here" syndrome, and it may be challenging the value that they claim to bring to their customers.

After all, none of the big technology trends of the past two decades emerged from the bowels of legacy tech vendors, despite their outsized R&D budgets. Open source? Not invented here. Cloud computing? Mobile? Big data? Same answer: none of it was invented by the legacy technology vendors.

Open source was a bottom-up hacker movement. Big data? It emerged from web giants like Google, Yahoo! and Facebook. Mobile computing? Despite early interest from Microsoft and others, it was Apple that made it real. Cloud? It doesn't necessarily have one source, but arguably Amazon can claim credit for popularizing Infrastructure-as-a-Service and Salesforce has done most to make Software-as-a-Service safe for enterprise consumption.

Which is not the same as saying that these companies, from IBM to Oracle, provide no value. But the nature of that value is sometimes confused. These companies don't tend to be the innovators: they are the ones packaging others' innovations.

In other words, some of the world's biggest technology brands are just that: brands.

This shouldn't surprise anyone. The bigger a company gets, the more bureaucratic it tends to become. While this slows its ability to innovate or, perhaps more accurately, its ability to turn research lab innovations into market-ready products, it does have the benefit of de-risking a technology purchase.

If we look at the world's top technology brands, IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and others headline the list, despite not driving the innovation agenda.

Because of the power of such brands, it has become a truism that "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM," even if they could have joined Barclays in saving 90 per cent of its IT budget by foregoing legacy vendors' solutions and instead building with open source and cloud.

CIOs don't turn to an HP or SAP to save money. Not usually. Nor do they really go to the legacy vendors for cutting-edge innovation. Instead, they look to these incumbent vendors to take cutting-edge innovation and remove the sharp edges. IBM made open source safe for the enterprise. Microsoft and a host of incumbent vendors are doing the same for Hadoop, NoSQL databases, and other essential big data infrastructure. Citrix, HP, VMware and others are doing the same for cloud.

Hence, a risk-averse CIO may turn to VMware for its cloud services instead of going to Amazon, or they might prefer to buy business intelligence software from IBM rather than rolling their own with open-source tools like Hadoop or Storm. It's not that they expect the software/services to be better from these stolid vendors, but rather that their brands provide a blanket of safety, even if the reality (trillions of dollars in IT failure) is somewhat less rosy.

I should also add that while it may not be the Oracles of the world that are seeing and building the future, once they put their collective minds to a rising trend they can take nascent technologies and really make them sing. For example, if you can wade through the marketing speak on IBM's big data success stories page, there are some amazingly cool ways that enterprises are deploying IBM tools (built with Hadoop and a suite of IBM products) to great effect.

So, don't expect the future to be invented by these tech titans. The future is not invented here. But it's definitely packaged and branded here. ®

Matt Asay is vice president of corporate strategy at 10gen, the MongoDB company. Previously he was SVP of business development at Nodeable, which was acquired in October 2012. He was formerly SVP of biz dev at HTML5 start-up Strobe (now part of Facebook) and chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfresco's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears three times a week on The Register. You can follow him on Twitter @mjasay.

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