Is IT really getting ready for a third platform?

IDC's claim that a new social-mobile-big data infrastructure is replacing PCs might be more wish than reality.

Sometimes thought leaders jump too far ahead of the people they're trying to lead -- so far out that their visions seem like fantasies. Or, are they just behaving like all visionary leaders and imagining a future for the more practical-minded to make real?

David EssexDavid Essex

That's the question I'm pondering after IDC's always thought-provoking Directions conference earlier this month in Boston. For the third straight year, the Framingham, Mass.-based research firm pushed hard on its theme of the "third platform" -- the potentially powerful melding of today's cloud, mobile, social media, big data and analytics trends into the fundamental infrastructure that underpins most new development. The third platform will largely replace the PC (which mostly did away with the mainframe) and IT departments had better get ready for it now, the story goes.

But IDC's pitch is as much for vendors of things-you-need-right-now as it is for beleaguered IT managers who might have finally believed they had mastered the old platform. There's a whiff of Field of Dreams corn, and not just the familiar, "if you build it, they will come" sentiment, but a few ghostly ballplayers appearing and disappearing in the stalks. The third platform is a huge business opportunity -- IDC is at pains to make clear -- and it will only get bigger when more people believe in it.

This is no knock on IDC. The third platform makes a neat little package for tying up the same technologies that other research firms -- as well as TechTarget, publisher of this site -- are buzzing about every day and trying to make money on.

Analyst firms love to be the first to coin buzzwords that can help market their research products, but IDC has earned the right to have its opinion heard on what the next platform might be. Since the 1960s, it has been tracking hardware shipments and made its name as a leading source of data on IT market trends.

IDC's third-platform efforts aren't all pie in the sky. Directions 2013 demonstrated that the company realizes the implementation stage is upon us, with seminars on enabling technologies like software-defined networking and Hadoop data management. But even these felt like quick-hit catalogs of the possibilities. Perhaps the consulting wings of IDC and competitors are working behind the scenes and in the trenches on real projects.

Companies lukewarm about cloud and mobile deployment

Then there is the reality suggested by two recent surveys of the IT professionals who read TechTarget's websites.

In our IT Priorities survey, third-platform deployment models (including mobile and several flavors of cloud) could barely get above one-quarter of the 550 responses. For each person reporting some kind of big data initiative, there was another who had no such plans or was only in the evaluation stage.

Perhaps more surprising was the lack of excitement for enterprise mobile -- that is, compared to IDC's predictions. Talk about truly disruptive technologies: smartphones and tablets are it. They're the real drivers of change in IT if, as IDC says, the individual is now king. But individuals aren't clamoring for analytics and big data – it's mostly their bosses who care about what's behind the curtain. In contrast, personal mobile devices are a new hardware platform that's actually encroaching on the PCs and networked servers of the second platform and threatening to replace them.

But they won't do it without running real business applications and data.

While just over a third of survey respondents had smartphone or tablet initiatives, the brush-your-teeth, eat-your-vegetables regimens that are needed to turn those devices into enterprise platforms -- mobile device management, for example -- again could only muster just over a 25% response. (Nevertheless, IDC sees sales of these tools doubling by 2016.) Mobile enhancement of corporate data or applications -- a critical step in this supposed consumerization of IT -- was named an initiative by 21% of respondents.

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A smaller survey of visitors to our application sites, including SearchSAP and SeachCRM, showed a similar reluctance to move their business workflows to mobile devices. Between a half and two-thirds of respondents had no plans to mobilize such key applications as CRM, finance and HR in the coming year.

These surveys -- and some of IDC's own numbers -- presented in Directions 2013's rosy opening keynote by IDC Senior Vice President Frank Gens, reveal another telling reality: Enterprise applications still aren't moving to the cloud. The applications that 493 respondents said they were mostly likely to move are those that are already safely in the cloud or can't be as conveniently delivered any other way: email, mobile apps, collaboration and data backup.

While Gens called these third-platform technologies, most of them, except for email, don't typically handle a company's core workflows and transactions. The bottom dwellers in IDC's survey are the truly mission-critical systems, such as legacy applications, ERP, financials and HR. For these run-the-business apps, more people preferred the security of private clouds to public ones. That's hardly a bold venture into the cloud, though in fairness, Gens was discussing opportunities that cross the entire universe of computing, including consumer markets.

No one wants to be a horse-and-buggy defender while Model Ts are flying off the assembly lines. I have enough sense to know that visionaries earn that moniker by having a vision of what could be, and the naysayers of their time look pathetic when history finally vindicates the visionaries.

IDC is probably going to be right about this being the third platform of IT. Just not yet.

David Essex is executive editor of TechTarget's business application websites. You can reach him at dessex@techtarget.com and on Twitter @dessexTT.

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