Web Informant #406, 13 April 2005: The Flat Earth Society




I am sick and tired of hearing about how the Internet has flattened the world. How instantaneous communications has made it easier for outsourcing to India and China. And how email has flattened organizations since the CEO can hear directly from the lowliest file clerk. Yeah, been there. So last week.


Nevertheless, I was fascinated and captivated by Tom Friedman's latest book, "The World is Flat," which has just been published. You should pick up a copy:



Maybe it is because I am already a big fan of Friedman's columns in the NY Times, although they are now hard to find since they have been time-shifted. But isn't time shifting all part of the Great Flattening? Now that we all have TiVos and Web access to nytimes.com, who cares when a program is broadcast or a piece is actually printed?


Maybe because his book is extraordinarily well-written. It is chock-a-block with dozens of anecdotes from his travels around the Global Village. One of my favorites is how UPS is doing repairs on faulty Toshiba laptops. What does UPS know about repairing laptops? Since people were going to be sending their laptops back via UPS anyway, why not skip the step and have UPS run the repair facility, co-locate it next to their flight hub, and save time in getting the laptops back to the customers?


Reading his book made me start to think of what it means to live on a flat Earth and where other steps are being skipped in my daily work life. It isn't just that I now have a staff that spans nine time zones and works in five different countries and speaks three languages. It isn't just that everyone has email and Skype and can access the common workflow applications and calendars. It is that we take it for granted now that people aren't going to be coming into my physical office at 9 am and leaving at 5 pm, or that I even know what that means anymore.


My next thoughts were that computing platforms are almost flat to the point where they are invisible. Does it really matter which platform you choose? We all run some kind of browser, some kind of IMAP email and RSS readers, open the same kind of documents and spreadsheets, and use some form of Instant Messaging. We have our digital music collection on some software that has ripped all of our CDs into MP3s. The rest is really irrelevant, whether it is on a Mac or Windows or Lindows or some embedded OS that we don't even see like on a cell phone. Doesn't really matter. What are the two most successful uptakes in the platform business of the past several years? CrackBerry and gaming consoles. You don't hear people debating what kind of OS is running on their Nintendo, do you? It doesn't matter. They don't care, just as long as those games are available. We have arrived with the ultimate Flat Computer.


Here is another example. What should be the main digital source of entertainment in your car? Should it be a full-fledged audio system, an iPod with a car connector, an in-seat DVD player, a real PC or a game console? All of them are valid answers. All of them are being installed in cars across the planet by talented and not-so-talented people. All of them make sense, depending on the particular application suite that you are trying to deliver. And increasingly, all of these solutions will eventually be offered by the same set of companies and suppliers.


(Just to toot my own automotive horn here for a moment: you can check out a piece I wrote for Tom's on the subject here:)



Another example: LCD TVs. Does it really matter what display device we have, and what video stream drives it? Nope. (Friedman has another note about how Wal Mart convinced Sanyo to stay in the US and continue to make TVs here.)


Look at Microsoft, as another example. They have moved into the gaming market, and soon their revenues from gaming platforms will be larger than divisions that produce IT productivity applications. As my boss Omid writes about in his column this week, "Imagine what would happen if Oracle suddenly got its own reality show on Fox, or SAP put on a Broadway musical, all to great acclaim." Now that would be a flattening to be reckoned with.



What this means to me is that I need to spend time not on choosing platforms or which applications matter, but how to show what you need to accomplish your job and your life with whatever tools you have at hand. That was an eye-opener for me, and why I like Friedman's book so much.


Friedman spent the past year traveling around the world and talking to a lot of different people before he got his epiphany about the flat earth. He spends a lot of time telling you about his insights into the various tectonic forces that we all have heard before, such as outsourcing, open sourcing, and in-sourcing. But his approach is fresh, interesting, and intriguing. His parents used to tell him when he was a boy (as did my own) "Finish your dinner. Children are starving in China and India." Today, he says, we should be telling our children "Finish your homework. Children are starving for your jobs in China and India." The difference is big. Any brief examination of the news will prove, as (to just take something that happened this week) the huge distributor Ingram Micro will be laying off hundreds of people in the LA area and moving those jobs overseas to cut costs. The world is flat. Deal with it, or the next job to leave might be your own.


David Strom


Tom's Guides Publishing

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Westlake Village, CA 91362

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