Carrying On: Net Imagination = Innovation

Infrastructure, not online, supports applications. It also breaks new ground for apps that can transform businesses.

August 13, 2004

3 Min Read
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Consider the antediluvian process of clearing checks. Once the clerk accepts one, this slip of paper follows a tortuous path through a variety of banks and intermediaries: A small army of people handles a check as it rides on many trucks and passes through rusty mechanical sorting machines that ought to be in the Smithsonian. It takes days to clear a check for payment, even in the best scenarios. Hundreds of millions of checks are processed this way daily.

Why not simply image the check at the register and pass it around electronically? Electronic check conversion takes half the time, reduces fraud and error, cuts costs, pays the merchant faster, and reduces float. The clerk could hand you a cancelled check before you even leave the checkout line. But this process requires new infrastructure--devices, storage, servers and networks. And, most important, it requires a vision of how things can be done better.

Another example is municipal fire and rescue services. Emergency workers typically communicate using multiple incompatible radio systems, making collaboration difficult and putting lives at risk. Specialized mobile radio alone is no longer the answer. With the explosion of mesh networking, Wi-Fi "hot zones," WiMax and 3G, working in tandem with conventional specialized mobile radio, a metropolitan area can be blanketed with a communications fabric. Initiatives such as Raytheon's Patchwork Interoperability bring these networks together, allowing coordinated use by emergency response teams.

Taking this approach a step further, these systems can provide more than voice support: Smart buildings equipped with cameras can give firefighters a view of the inside of a building before they enter. Police can get an outside view of a potentially hazardous situation during a raid. This technology will not only save money, it will save lives too.

A revolution in low-power sensor and ad hoc networks looms on the horizon. Such systems have transformed military reconnaissance and battlefield monitoring. They have been brought into weather, environmental and structural monitoring. As costs come down, they will revolutionize retail, health care, transportation, logistics and even farm management. But only those alert enough to adopt early will have an edge.Although these examples are exciting, you don't need to wait for radically new technologies to be perfected to proceed. In retail, simple IP-based credit-card clearing networks reduce processing costs. In airports, Wi-Fi and voice over IP are changing the way gates and baggage-processing systems are used. Some uses are almost comically simple, like the Australian utility company that arms teenagers with SMS-enabled phones to read electric meters.

It's natural for functions to get standardized and for processes to become more common. But innovation not only benefits your company, it helps you as well. When a labor-intensive IT function, such as network operations, becomes principally a matter of craft, it is much easier to automate or outsource. So get creative. Your company, and your career, may depend on it.

David Willis is a vice president of Meta Group's Technology Research Services. Write to him at [email protected].

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