Nicholas Carr on Web 2.0, Google, and the Future of Technology

Friday Jul 20th 2007 by James Maguire
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And while he's at it, the controversial author of "IT Doesn’t Matter" – which shook up the tech world – talks about Microsoft's troubles, Steve Jobs as dictator, and why some companies won’t survive.

Not everyone was happy with Nicholas Carr’s much talked about article, “IT Doesn’t Matter.” Published in the Harvard Business Review in 2003, the article argued that as IT has become standardized, it no longer provides companies with a key competitive edge. Instead, IT is now merely a "commodity," a necessary cost of doing business – not the wondrous gee-whiz tool it was once believed to be.

Not surprisingly, some heavyweight tech vendors were quick to take exception. As they weighed in, scads of other tech analysts jumped into the fray, elevating Carr’s magazine piece into a major industry conflagration. In 2004, he expanded his article into the influential book, “Does IT Matter?”

nicholas carr, does IT matter?

Nicholas Carr

Since then, Carr has trained his analytic eye on any number of topics, including Web 2.0, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and – on a loftier plain – the relationship between memory and information in the digital age. In January 2008, he’ll release "The Big Switch: Our New Digital Destiny," a book that details how changes in technology affect the larger culture.

Datamation interviewed Carr about a variety of topics across the tech landscape:

Q: In your essay about Web 2.0, you write, “The promoters of Web 2.0 venerate the amateur and distrust the professional.” You make the point that the free labor of Web 2.0 – volunteer, amateur content creators – threatens paid, professional content creators. How serious a threat do you think this is?

I think in some areas it’s a real threat. Some of the more recent job losses in the media industry can be traced to the fact that a lot – or some – of those jobs can be replaced by amateurs or volunteers contributing their labor on the Web. For instance, a lot of newspapers and other publications can just go to Flickr and find free photographs to illustrate stories rather than hiring professional photographers.

To me, the problem isn’t with the amateurs, who in many fields can do work every bit as good as the professionals. But there are some things that you really do need professionals for, and you need the companies who hire professionals and bring them together into teams. And the danger is that some of the products that really require professionals and institutions may be lost as companies go over to cheap or free labor.

Q: But it’s not really Wikipedia that’s forcing the LA Times to lay off reporters. It’s the move from paper to the Internet, and that’s a separate issue from professionals versus unpaid labor.

Right. I think they’re connected, but the readership of paper newspapers has been falling for decades. So it’s certainly something that began before the Internet. But I think what we’re seeing recently is an acceleration of the trend, as more and more people get their news online. So obviously the media companies are going to follow them onto the Internet.

There are a few problems, though. One is that, so far, it has been very difficult for traditional media to gain the kind of revenues that they did in the past through print. And second, is that they’ll rely more on blogs, or amateur photographers, or other volunteers to provide free content, given the cost pressures they’re under; they’re going to that model more and more. And again, what that ultimately means is some dark days for a lot of talented professionals. Once they lose their jobs, we might find that we relied on those people more than we knew.

Q: On your blog you observe that, “Like the iPod, the iPhone is a little fortress ruled over by King Steve. It's as self-contained as a hammer.” You say that the iPhone runs counter to the Web 2.0 ethos. What do you mean by that?

If you look at Apple, it’s a company that isn’t particularly interested in the crowd, or social production, or any of these kind of Web 2.0 democratic collaboratives. Steve Jobs is really a dictator and the company runs tightly and secretly, and it produces great products. Like the iPhone, or the iPod.

To me, if you want a great example of the strength of traditional modes of production, you can look at Apple. That doesn’t mean crowds of people online can’t provide good work, but Apple provides a counter example. If you want really great products, sometimes you need small, tightly managed teams of very talented professionals.

Q: You've written about the difference between Microsoft and Apple, observing that a speech by Bill Gates "was a replay of his keynote at last year’s CES. He's still pitching a ‘digital lifestyle’ that nobody wants.” How does this compare with Apple's strategy?

My distinction between Apple and Microsoft is that, Microsoft seems intent on trying to put together grandiose platforms. And that comes through in some recent speeches that Bill Gates has given, where he’s laid out these grand visions of digital lifestyle. Whereas, in contrast, Apple seems to be very much focused on individual products; you might even call them individual tools.

And I think the essential difference between the two companies is that Apple is narrowly focused on producing a handful of great products, and Microsoft is having trouble moving from grand visions to successful new products and services.

Q: In your blog post, “Beyond Google and Evil” you talk about how Google has the potential to turn us all into “pancake people” – individuals who are spread wide, with less emphasis on a uniquely constructed inner life. Do this mean we should start viewing the great Google with a jaundiced eye?

I think it’s important to look at Google skeptically. I have no doubt that it’s sincere in its desire to do no evil, or whatever its slogan is. But Google has an incredible amount of power now, in determining how people navigate the Web, and thus how people navigate information. And I think that even if it doesn’t intend to abuse that power, it can have that effect. By squelching innovation in some ways, [for example] by steering people toward more popular Web sites – including its own sites, like YouTube.

nicholas carr, does IT matter?

Nicholas Carr

Also, and this isn’t so much Google alone, but the way we now gather information, via Web sites, and in particular via links between Web sites, is very different from how people have been gathering information for the last 500 years or so since the invention of the printing press.

And I think there’s a lot we don’t know about what it’s going to ultimately mean for the way we think, and the way we see the world. It’s been pointed out by others that Google, because of its success as a search engine, kind of in some ways begins to replace the human memory. You don’t have to remember everything, if you know that simply by Googling everything you’ll find it again.

And in that post, I quote from that playwright who talks about that sense of becoming ‘pancake people’ because our memory and our consciousness begins to flatten, and we no longer hold inside our own minds the kind of rich, cultural heritage that we used to. That’s speculative, certainly, but I think we are on a path to a new way, to a new – ‘consciousness’ might be too big a word – but a new way of interacting with information, and thus with knowledge.

Q: Do you think that Google is really steering users, more than merely creating an all-encompassing algorithm? Is there some more conscious sense of the way they’re pushing information flow?

With the search algorithms, I don’t think they’re jiggering with those in any kind of duplicitous way. But I do think they have the effect of, over time, consolidating traffic in a smaller range of sites. And you can see that [effect] with Wikipedia. Now, almost anything you search for, Wikipedia is going to appear first, second or third.

On the other hand, I think Google is beginning, outside those formal algorithms, to steer people toward its own site through its search engine. It now, for instance, includes news results, and the news results lead you to Google News. And it incorporates video results, and the video results lead you to [Google property] YouTube.

So as Google itself gets bigger, and owns more popular Web properties, it does begin, in effect, to lead you back to Google.

Q: In the software industry there’s a titanic battle between Microsoft and open source. How do you see that playing out?

I think Microsoft has begun to realize that it’s going to have to accommodate open source software, particularly at the infrastructure or operating system level. And I think it’s going to, slowly but surely, move in that direction. The big challenge it faces is: how to accommodate open source, without itself turning into an open source company and losing its traditional revenues.

I don’t see it moving in, say, the IBM direction, where you essentially give away a lot of the software and make your money from the services. That doesn’t seem to be in Microsoft’s DNA. So it does face a tough challenge in figuring out how to play in a world where there is a lot of open source software.

At the same time, it also faces the challenge of existing where a lot of applications begin to be delivered over the Internet. Those two transitions, or those two forces, software as a service and open source, I think are going to continue to pose big challenges to Microsoft’s traditional business.

I think we’re going to see multiple models of delivering software. So I don’t see open source taking over everything, but I do see open source continuing to eat away at some of the traditional software markets.

Q: In your piece, “The End of Corporate Computing” you talk about three factors, virtualization, grid computing and Web services, that will transform IT into a service to be purchased from utility providers. Who in the present day tech scene will be the winners and losers in this scenario?

It’s very hard to say. I’m not a guy who tries to predict the future for individual companies, because individual companies can make different decisions that affect their futures. But if you look today, you can see some of the leaders in the new model of providing IT as, in effect, a utility.

You have Google, which is now beginning to move into the small business market with Google Apps. You have Salesforce.com, which has become the leader in providing CRM software as a service, but now is transforming itself into a broad platform for supplying applications as a service. You have Amazon Web Services – again, focused on the small business market – but providing infrastructure, in effect, as a service, so small companies don’t have to invest in servers or storage gear and so on.

And there are thousands of small software-as-a-service companies emerging, some of which will be successful, many of which won’t. So I think there’s a whole lot of exciting activity in the utility computing market, broadly defined.

And some of the old-line firms are moving in that direction as well. Microsoft certainly hopes to make the transition through its various Live and Office services. Sun Microsystems seems in some ways to be repositioning itself as a kind of supplier of choice to new utility computing companies. And EMC has a booming business with VMWare. So I think things are in flux and are going to remain in flux for the next few years.

Q: And this idea of utility computing is what your upcoming book, “The Big Switch,” is about, right?

Yeah. ‘Utility computing’ is one of those terms that means different things to everybody. But I take it in its broadest sense. That instead of installing gear or software locally, you get the computing capabilities over the Internet, supplied by more centralized, utility-like suppliers. So that means everything from playing World of Warcraft from centralized servers instead of installing a game on your own PC, to big companies using Salesforce.com instead of installing Siebel Systems CRM applications.

In the book, though, I not only look at the technological trend, but go on to see how this shift – and I think it’s a fundamental shift in the nature of computing – how it’s going to influence economics, culture, society, media. In other words, how its ripple effects will play out over the coming years and decades.

Q: So it’s not a book just for CIOs?

Right, I think CIOs are certainly interested in these trends, but the book itself isn’t written for a narrow, techie audience.

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