Some of you may recall an article that came out a few years back entitled IT Doesn't Matter, written by a well-educated author from Beantown by the name of Nicholas Carr. It caused quite a fervor - Steve Ballmer is quoted on the back of Carr's book Does IT Matter? as calling the content "Hogwash!" Other IT executives had similar things to say.
Fast-forward to today, when I had the privilege of attending the Microsoft Executive Circle luncheon in Chicago, where Nicholas Carr and Microsoft's own Robert McDowell discussed the value of IT in today's rapidly changing marketplace. Curiously, they agreed on many points, stating that IT, by itself, was not a suitable differentiator in the marketplace. Bob (yes, we're on a first name basis, sort of) pointed out several recent business examples where IT is still making a big difference (WalMart, Dell, JetBlue), but was quick to note that it was not the IT itself, but a strategic use of IT within the construct of a sound business strategy that made it worthwhile.
Personally, I am still a bit up in the air. I see a value to using software and hardware to simplify our daily lives - as I type this on my laptop, my Pocket PC Phone Edition is recharging from my USB port and my email is synching, allowing me to get back to work shortly. However, I also agree that some software is starting to become a commodity. Once a large majority of the population use certain tools, to the point that they become indispensible, they are effectively a commodity. Look at web browsers and information worker applications (e.g. Microsoft Office). Everyone uses them, but most people don't really consider which ones they use, except the zealots, but we won't go there. No, most people are content as long as their basic needs are met. Another example of a luxury that became a commodity - the telephone. There are still innovative enhancements to the telephone hardware and software we use, but it's still a telephone at the end of the day and that is what makes it indispensible.
The real value that we get from IT is the strategic use and custom development on top of the commoditized versions. From where I sit, I see Microsoft as strategically creating commodity products, but with a twist... most of our products have a robust customization opportunity, opening the door for third-party vendors and partners to create value-add solutions on top of what we provide. The foundation is a commodity, no argument from me there - it's the solutions that you developers create on top of these foundations (Office, SQL, Windows, Web, Mobile) that make you and your organizations shine. So keep up the good work.
We'll keep commoditizing and standardizing as long as you promise to advance and innovate.