Kocher, Ballmer chart IT's future

The combination of the Internet and other technological innovations, such as advanced speech recognition, electronic paper and software that enables computers to see and learn, will fuel a dramatic shift in the next five years in the way the government and the commercial sector do business, according to two top industry executives.

While Micron Electronics Inc.'s chief executive officer Joel Kocher (pronounced KO-ER) and Microsoft Corp.'s president Steve Ballmer are by no means cut from the same cloth, the two share a common vision of what the future holds for the information technology industry.

That common vision begins and ends with the Internet.

"Today's revolution is being fueled by the furious rise of the network," said Kocher, speaking recently at the 13th annual Air Force Information Technology Conference. "Five years ago, most people had not even heard of the Internet. Last year, 2.7 trillion e-mails were sent."

But the revolution that Kocher spoke about goes far beyond e-mail, encompassing real-time electronic business transactions and customer support.

In addition, it goes beyond thinking about IT as just another tool in an enterprise's toolbox, making IT the focal point of all business strategies, whether commercial or governmental.

"IT has to be part of the strategy formulation, not part of the strategy execution," Kocher said. "IT is the strategy," he said. In fact, Kocher soon plans to launch Micron headlong into the brave new world of IT management and support services, guided primarily by his vision of where the Internet is taking electronic commerce and how it is changing the customer/vendor relationship.

In fact, Kocher told FCW that plans are in the works for Micron to enter the Internet appliance market very soon. "It would be very naive to think that the PC is going to maintain its historical form factor," Kocher said.

According to Ballmer, who also gave a keynote speech at AFITC, Microsoft always has believed IT is central to any corporate strategy, particularly in the area of managing corporate knowledge.

In fact, according to Ballmer, one of the keys of Microsoft's corporate vision is to "empower people through great software any time, any place and on any device."

"The personal computer has always been about giving the individual the tools they need," he said. While the PC always will be "an essential device," Ballmer said Microsoft recognizes that other Internet devices are emerging that place a premium on managing information and knowledge.

Microsoft's "Digital Dashboard" will be the centerpiece of the company's strategy to tackle the knowledge management challenge, Ballmer said.

The Digital Dashboard, which Microsoft will unveil with the release of Office 2000, will enable the world's cadre of "knowledge workers" to filter and segregate the information flowing onto their desktops so that they can weed through volumes of low-priority data to get to critical, time-sensitive information.

"When we talk about knowledge workers, we're talking about most people," Ballmer said. "The key is easy customization [and] role-based views of the world."

Ballmer also said that Microsoft is championing the cause of pushing hardware vendors to begin integrating features that will be key to the knowledge workers of the future. The computer of the future will "see, listen and learn," Ballmer said, which will require hardware manufacturers to begin integrating microphones and other multimedia devices.

Although high-quality speech recognition is about four years away from becoming mainstream, digital recording will become a fundamental part of the computer, Ballmer said.

Kocher, whose company is best known for building and shipping high-quality desktops, servers and notebooks, said he has accepted the fact that Microsoft and Intel Corp. have made conscious decisions to retain much of the industry's technological advancement capability within their respective camps. But that does not mean Micron no longer has a role to play in what is fast becoming an Internet-based economy, Kocher said.

Micron plans to use the Internet for tasks ranging from Windows 2000 deployment to hosting corporate World Wide Web sites and applications, he said.

In addition, Micron is offering all its traditional PC customers free online access to what the company calls its "Micron University" of product support information.

"These programs are designed to provide efficiencies and leverage strength and scale," Kocher said. "In the new economy, those who survive will thrive."

"The true test is upon us and it has been thrust up on us by the Web," he said. "There has never been a better time to be a customer [or] a more demanding time to be a company."

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