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IBM's Software Predictions

New software visualization tools will help make sense out of the increasing abundance and complexity of information.

Software can be roughly divided into two camps: the kind that the average person uses for photo-sharing and e-mailing, and the kind that provides an information infrastructure for businesses.

While business software largely remains behind-the-scenes, it is crucial to making sure that packages get delivered, stores are stocked, and money is transferred securely. Increasingly, businesses must manage “information overload”–something that the average person experiences through copious e-mails and instant messages–to make quick, effective decisions.

Technology Review interviewed Kristof Kloeckner, the vice president of strategy and technology for IBM’s software group, to find out how software can be used to help people and businesses cope with the increasing amount of information, and how software will evolve as that information grows more complex.

TR: From your standpoint, what are some important trends that will drive software development in the future?

Kristof Kloeckner: One trend is growing complexity. You have an abundance of e-mails, instant messages, and calendar events. There’s lots of information that you need to winnow down to what’s important for you. This has direct relevance for consumers when you look at information management. How do you actually find information that is relevant for you and put it in context? The simple example is where someone magically finds information and mashes it up with Google maps, but there are complex challenges around that. Can you trust this information? Is it correct? Who supplied it?

TR: How is this complexity being tackled?

KK: At IBM, we call it “Information on Demand.” It’s a combination of software that analyzes data, detects patterns, and allows patterns to be visualized, basically showing you the information in the data in a way that you can see the important trends and the important results. Visualization is extremely important because somehow you have to transform numbers into something that’s comprehensible. It’s really the volume of data and the need for speed that is driving this technology and adoption. What this boils down to is, we really want to help you use the information that’s hidden in your data. You want to free it up, and you want to do it on a timescale that’s relevant for your business.

TR: IBM works with organizations such as banks and retailers to develop software that can help them manage the masses of data that they collect. How does this relate to the average person?

KK: It relates to the average consumer in an indirect way because it enables enterprises to react more quickly to consumer demands. One example I find very fascinating involves a mid-sized clothing retailer in Germany–a global company I’ve worked with for the past two years. What they’ve built themselves is an integrated supply chain that can get really early indications of consumer trends. The company claims that it can do real-time trend analysis, data analysis on what customers are shopping for. This gives them up-to-the-minute insight into buying trends. For instance, the company claims that it can discover people’s color preferences for clothes earlier than it could by just looking at data from a few specific stores. Consumers’ buying behaviors over all the stores are tracked in real time, and the data is analyzed to predict future trends. In essence, the store can deliver what you want before you know you want it.

TR: How will software like this evolve over the next few years?

KK: There are some interesting projects in data mining and analysis of data that isn’t nicely searchable, such as those in databases. We’re developing software that’s better at looking through “unstructured data,” such as e-mails, and parsing them for patterns. For instance, the e-mails received by a customer-service center could lead to a change in the call-center menu or [could] change the training of call-center agents to better accommodate the questions that people ask.

Another major trend is the rise of social software, collaborative software, and support of knowledge-based communities. What we are finding is [that] the power of communities is very strong, and leveraging it within an enterprise actually works to increase productivity. We have found a lot of interest in our social software, wikis, and blogs.

In addition, one of the trends that we feel may be coming is the 3-D Internet. Virtual worlds, such as Second Life, are gaining relevance. I wouldn’t say that everyone in the future is going to conduct their business meetings online, but we’re seeing an increase in it. Years ago, when I was developing work-flow software in Germany, I was dealing with a business partner from a university who was trying to simulate the interaction between people in a visual way. At that time, 10 years ago, the technology was kind of pitiful; it looked rather clumsy and quaint. But today, we may be getting there.

TR: What will be the biggest challenges in dealing with all this data and making it usable?

KK: The questions are, how do you protect enterprise data? and, as a user, how can you trust that data? For instance, we’re working on digital-rights technology: when you put something on the Internet, how do you specify the rights?

There are still questions of how to make sure that all of the complex data is manageable, and users stay in control of it. And importantly, it needs to be done quickly and affordably.

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