The Book Corner - Review

The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google by Nicholas Carr

The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google

By Nicholas Carr
W.W. Norton, 2008

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4 stars: Thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating material

What does the future have in store for the Microsoft Office Suite you just purchased and installed? Nicolas Carr, author and former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, has an idea. Let me give you a hint-chapter four is titled, “Goodbye, Mr. Gates.”

The Big Switch is a thought-provoking book about the impact of technology and the Internet on business and society at large; it explores the commoditization of technology, particularly as it applies to the corporate environment. Nicholas Carr is the author of the controversial Harvard Business Review article, “IT Doesn’t Matter.” This book is his second follow-up to that article, and Carr continues to refine his theory and further his case.

The author makes a convincing argument comparing the impact of the evolution of corporate computing to that of electricity on manufacturing processes and requirements. In Carr’s vision of the future, software as a service (SaaS)-a model of software deployment wherein an application is hosted as a service provided to customers across the Internet-looms large; he predicts that SaaS will have a significant impact on business strategies and processes. (Editor’s Note: Read more about SaaS in this issue here).

Carr briefly explores the cultural impact of the Internet and the notion that it creates an egalitarian community, especially through the growing use of social networking sites. This analysis ultimately concludes with a criticism of unbundling and personalization, which he views as enabling homogeneous thought and polarization.

Unbundling can be described as the effect the online delivery channel has on the final shape and form of the product when the end-user sees it. For example, when viewed online, the reader no longer sees a complete newspaper with a grouping of various stories and advertisements. Instead, the reader views a single story and has little exposure to the other elements of the previously bundled product. The prevalence of RSS feeds, which enable the reader to view a publication’s content without visiting its website, furthers the unbundling of the medium. Carr gives some solid examples of unbundling and provides an insightful look at the impact it is having on business processes, such as the decline of newspaper readership and the emergence of search-engine-friendly journalism. He leaves the reader to ponder the deeper implications of unbundling and its role in the development of future business strategies.

Though the book’s subject matter spans technology, the Internet, and corporate computing, Carr has a larger message: The evolution of technology is bringing entire industries to a true paradigm shift. Whether you agree with him or not, this is a book that will make you question your perspective and the longevity of your company’s current competitive strategy. For business leaders with any interest in the evolution of IT and its place in the corporate world, The Big Switch should be required reading.

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